Case of fired Phila. Water Dept. employee remanded to state court

By Jon Campisi | Jun 15, 2012

A state trial court judge in Philadelphia will have to handle the case of a fired employee suing over his job loss after a federal judge refused to exercise jurisdiction over the matter.

John Kline, who worked as a surveyor for the Philadelphia Water Department from 1985 to 2005, is suing the city, claiming he was terminated after being falsely accused of violating city residency requirements.

Kline, who was 52 at the time of his firing, appealed his firing to the Civil Service Commission, and, in the spring of 2007, was reinstated with full back pay and benefits, the record shows.

The city filed a motion for reconsideration of the Civil Service Commission decision, and, after that failed, appealed directly to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas.

The city lost that initial appeal, with a trial court judge agreeing with the Civil Service Commission that the “City’s investigation and evidence fell woefully short rendering the City’s conclusions indefensible.”

The city then appealed to Commonwealth Court, the state’s lower-tier appellate court, which subsequently upheld the trial court’s ruling.

Kline was reinstated to his job on Nov. 1, 2009, but, because of the city’s “insistence on pressing its claim against Kline,” court papers state, Kline was denied compensation for retroactive pay from December 2005 through March 2010.

The city’s actions caused Kline to allegedly suffer a nervous breakdown, and he subsequently retired from his position with the Water Department.

Kline filed a writ of summons, court papers signaling an intention to sue, with the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas on May 16, 2011, the record shows.

The city filed a notice of removal on April 20, 2012, based on jurisdictional issues; Kline asserts due process and equal protection claims, as well as alleged civil rights violations, all federal jurisdiction claims.

On June 12, U.S. District Judge Berle M. Schiller, of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, issued an order dismissing the federal claims against all defendants.

Aside from the city, the other defendants include Water Commissioner Bernard B. Brunwasser, various Water Department officials, and investigators with the city’s Inspector General’s Office.

Schiller dismissed some of the federal claims because they were time-barred, and thus now outside of the statute of limitations.

The judge also dismissed a retaliatory discharge claim against the city because Kline failed to take the appropriate administrative steps before filing suit, namely, he failed to file a charge of discrimination with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

As for Kline’s state law claims, which include wrongful use of civil proceedings, abuse of process, intentional infliction of emotional distress, wrongful discharge and negligence, Schiller wrote that these claims could “readily be determined by a Pennsylvania state court.”

“This case is at its beginning stages and given that the case will return to the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas, the Court discerns no additional convenience to the parties if the case remains in federal court,” the order states.

Schiller wrote that the only matter left to decide was whether to remand the case or dismiss the remaining claims without prejudice to raise them in state court.

The judge opted for the former, writing that “remand or dismissal without prejudice is a distinction without a difference here, because Kline’s state law claims are tolled for a minimum of thirty days following dismissal once the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction.”

Schiller said the decision to remand the case to state court was made in the interest of “moving this case forward.”

Kline’s original complaint was filed May 16 at the Philadelphia Court of Common Pleas by attorney Thomas F. Reilly, of the Philadelphia firm Swartz Campbell.

The city is being represented by attorneys from the Labor and Employment Unit of the Philadelphia Solicitor’s Office.

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