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Robinson v. Town of Marshfield

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 11, 2019

Kevin Robinson, Plaintiff,
v.
Town of Marshfield, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM & ORDER

          NATHANIEL M. GORTON, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The case arises out of a dispute related to the resignation of Kevin Robinson (“Robinson” or “the Chief”) as the Chief of the Fire Department in Marshfield, Massachusetts. Robinson alleges that he was constructively discharged as Fire Chief in retaliation for lodging internal complaints for age and gender discrimination against other officials in the Town of Marshfield.

         The defendants respond that Robinson resigned because he was facing credible disciplinary action for violating state ethics rules. Following his resignation, Robinson filed a complaint in federal court alleging age discrimination, retaliation, failure to investigate claims of discrimination, breach of contract, intentional interference with contractual relations and defamation.

         I. Background

         Kevin Robinson served as the Marshfield Fire Chief for 12 years until he retired in March, 2015, when he was 60 years old. Although his employment contract with the Town of Marshfield (“the Town”) expired in 2013, he continued as Chief of the Fire Department pending the renegotiation of his contract (as was common practice) until he retired in 2015. The Town then hired Deputy Chief William Hocking, who is 54 years old, as the new Fire Chief following plaintiff's resignation.

         A. Involvement with Family Members

         The Town alleges that the Chief improperly interfered with the disputed employment of his family members by the Town, which ultimately led to his resignation. In October, 2013, the Chief's niece, Shauna Robinson Patten (“Ms. Patten”), was selected for a full-time firefighter trainee position with the Marshfield Fire Department. Before Ms. Patten began her employment, the Board of Selectmen (“the Board”) met with the Chief and he submitted a conflict of interest disclosure form which stated that he would 1) recuse himself from any involvement in the interview or promotion process for which his brother, son or niece (all then employees of his department) became candidates, 2) not make any discretionary assignments resulting in extra pay for his family members and 3) notify the Town of any potential disciplinary situation involving a family member.

         During the first year of Ms. Patten's training, two of her supervisors expressed concerns about her ability to make decisions. Upon hearing about those concerns, the Chief asked that Ms. Patten be transferred to his group and, at one point, despite concerns from supervisors, he placed Ms. Patten on “shift strength” (meaning that she was able to take regular shifts). While defendants contend that Ms. Patten received special treatment during her training, Robinson submits that his niece was subject to gender discrimination by the defendants.

         With respect to the Chief's brother, Shaun Robinson, a captain in the Marshfield Fire Department, defendants argue that the Chief conducted a disciplinary hearing without the presence of the Town Administrator or Town Counsel and later improperly reduced the disciplinary punishment meted out to his brother. The Chief responds that the Town Administrator, Rocco Longo (“Longo”) gave him permission to reduce the punishment. Contemporaneously, the Town declined to renegotiate the Chief's contract, which had expired in 2013, and allegedly encouraged him to retire at least three times. The Town also reported the Chief's supervision of family employees to the State Ethics Commission (“the Commission”).

         B. Placement on Administrative Leave

         In January, 2015, Chief Robinson filed a complaint with the Board alleging that he was a victim of age discrimination and harassment. The Board retained Attorney Regina Ryan who concluded in February that those complaints were meritless. That same month, Attorney Mark Smith, whose firm had been retained by the Town in November, 2014, to investigate allegations of conflict of interest, issued a report (“the Smith Report”) which concluded that the Chief and his brother violated one or more sections of the Massachusetts conflict of interest laws. He recommended that the matter be referred to the Commission for further proceedings.

         Following a February, 2015, meeting, the Board placed the Chief on paid administrative leave for 60 days. The next day, he was notified of his right to a public hearing to demonstrate why he should not be removed for cause. Nine days later, the Chief tendered his resignation as a result of which the Commission informed the Town that its investigation into the Chief's alleged misconduct would be terminated.

         While defendants aver that they had good cause to terminate the Chief based upon his conflict of interest violations, he rejoins that from 2013 to 2015, the defendants retaliated against him because of his gender and age discrimination complaints. He further submits that, as part of the retaliation, the defendants, among other things, interfered with his job performance, refused to renegotiate his employment contract, pressured him to retire, threatened to damage his reputation if he refused to retire, initiated an internal investigation against him, voted to terminate him and placed him on paid administrative leave. The Chief filed his complaint in December, 2016, against the Town, the Town Administrator, Longo and the Chair of the Board, John Hall (collectively, “the defendants”). Pending before the Court is defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         II. Legal Analysis

         A. Legal Standard

         The role of summary judgment is to assess the proof in order to see whether there is a genuine need for trial. Mesnick v. Gen. Elec. Co., 950 F.2d 816, 822 (1st Cir. 1991). The burden is on the moving party to show, through the pleadings, discovery and affidavits, that there is “no genuine dispute as to any material fact and that the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law”. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is material if it “might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law”. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact exists where the evidence with respect to the material fact in dispute “is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party”. Id.

         If the moving party has satisfied its burden, the burden shifts to the nonmoving party to set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine, triable issue. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986). The Court must view the entire record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and indulge all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. O'Connor v. Steeves, 994 F.2d 905, 907 (1st Cir. 1993). Summary judgment is appropriate if, after viewing the record in the nonmoving party's favor, the Court determines that no genuine issue of material fact exists and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 322-23.

         B. Motion for Summary Judgment

         1. Age Discrimination (Count I)

         The plaintiff alleges age discrimination against the defendants under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, 29 U.S.C. § 623(a) (“the ADEA”) and M.G.L. c. 151B.

         a. Federal Claims under the ADEA

         Where there is no direct evidence of wrongful discharge under the ADEA, courts apply the McDonnell burden-shifting framework set forth by the Supreme Court. Del Valle-Santana v. Servicios Legales De Puerto Rico, Inc., 804 F.3d 127, 129 (1st Cir. 2015). Under that framework, the plaintiff must prove a prima facie case for age discrimination by showing that 1) he was at least 40 years old, 2) his work was sufficient to meet the employer's legitimate expectations, 3) the employer took adverse action against the plaintiff and 4) either younger persons were retained for the same position upon the plaintiff's termination or the employer did not treat age neutrally in taking the adverse action. Id. Once the plaintiff establishes a prima facie case, the burden shifts to the employer to articulate a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason” for dismissing the employee. Id. If the employer does so, the plaintiff is required to show that the employer's proffered reason is a pretext and that age was the “but-for” cause of the adverse action. Id.

         Defendants assert that because the Chief voluntarily resigned, he was not subject to an adverse employment action under the ADEA. They contend that the fact that he was facing potential disciplinary charges does not establish duress or coercion and that a plain reading of his resignation letter, which discloses his desire to spend more time with this family, is further evidence of no coercion. As to the individual defendants, Messrs. Longo and Hall, defendants aver that individual liability is not available under the ADEA and thus those claims fail as a matter of law. The Chief does not contest that assertion.

         The Chief assumes that he has met his burden of stating a prima facie case and asserts that defendants failed to articulate a legitimate reason for the Town's employment decision. He submits that defendants' “legitimate reason” for his “termination” is full of inconsistencies, that defendants have previously admitted that the Chief had ...


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