Fired Pa. police officer cannot move forward with complaint against municipality, judge rules

Jon Campisi Jan. 9, 2012, 1:29pm

A former Bethel Township, Pa. police officer who claimed he was relieved of his duties in retaliation for pushing the formation of a union cannot move forward with his complaint against the department, after a federal judge in Philadelphia ruled the plaintiff has already had his day in court.

U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller on Jan. 5 ruled in favor of Bethel Township and Bethel Police Chief John L. Cairo, who had filed a motion for summary judgment in a case in which the municipality and Cairo were being sued by former cop John W. Smith.

Smith, who wanted to unionize the township’s part-time police force after some long-serving officers were terminated, had posted pro-union flyers throughout the township office building, an action he claims led to his firing.

Smith, who had worked as a part-time township police officer from 2003 to 2009, alleged that the job termination was retaliatory in nature. The defendants denied the charge.

“Were this the first time Smith tried to press this claim, he might be entitled to have his day in federal court,” Schiller wrote in the ruling. “But he has already brought Bethel Township before the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board for the same conduct he complains about here. Because the Court agrees with Defendants that Smith has already had his claims adjudicated, the Court grants the [Defendants’] motion.”

The judge dismissed Smith’s claims because he would have had to show that his protected unionizing activity was a substantial or motivating factor in his termination.

“In other words, he would have to show exactly what the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board concluded he had failed to show,” Schiller wrote.

The ruling states that Smith took no further action on the earlier decision by the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, which constitutes the board’s decision a final judgment on the merits of the case.

The federal judge also wrote that the fact that the newer civil action contained Cairo as a defendant – the police chief hadn’t been a party to the previous complaint – didn’t make a difference.

“The fact that this case involves a defendant … who was not a defendant in the previous action does not foreclose the application of issue preclusion here,” Schiller wrote.

In the ruling, Schiller also noted that the previous civil action satisfied the requirements of due process.

Smith was previously represented by a lawyer, was able to call witnesses and submit evidence on his behalf, and also had his exceptions considered, and subsequently rejected by, an appellate body.

“If there is additional process which Smith is due, he has not illuminated what it might be,” the ruling states. “Defendants satisfy the four requirements for application of issue preclusion under Pennsylvania law.”

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