VanDeusen and Simons on Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri

VanDeusen and Simons on Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri


In Borough of Duryea v. Guarnieri [an enhanced version of this opinion is available to subscribers / unenhanced version available from lexisONE Free Case Law], the Supreme Court held that a government employer is not liable under the Petition Clause of the First Amendment for retaliatory action taken against a government employee, unless the employee's petition relates to a matter of public concern. This holding, which reversed the Third Circuit's decision that all petitions were protected by Petition Clause regardless of subject matter, harmonizes the decisions of every other circuit that had considered the issue.

Constitutional and Statutory Provisions

The First Amendment to the United States Constitution provides that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." U.S. Const. Amend. 1 [an annotated version of this Amendment is available to subscribers].

42 U.S.C. § 1983 [an annotated version of this statute is available to subscribers] provides:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory or the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress, except that in any action brought against a judicial officer for an act or omission taken in such officer's judicial capacity, injunctive relief shall not be granted unless a declaratory decree was violated or declaratory relief was unavailable. For the purposes of this section, any Act of Congress applicable exclusively to the District of Columbia shall be considered to be a statute of the District of Columbia.

Factual Background

The Borough of Duryea, Pennsylvania is a town of approximately 4,600 people. In February 2003, through its Borough Council, it dismissed its Chief of Police, Charles J. Guarnieri. A member of the police union, Guarnieri filed a grievance for his termination, which proceeded to arbitration. The arbitrator found in his favor based on procedural errors in his termination. The arbitrator also found, however, that Guarnieri committed misconduct by trying to intimidate Council members. The arbitrator reinstated Guarnieri, but only after he served a brief suspension.

In January 2005, Guarnieri returned to his position as Chief of Police. To ensure that Guarnieri knew what was expected of him, the Council issued eleven (11) directives about his performance. The directives governed things that Guarnieri could or could not do, e.g., he could not attend Council meetings as Chief of Police; he could not take overtime without the Council's permission and he could use his police car for business only. Guarnieri filed another union grievance about the directives, which led to a second arbitration. The arbitrator ordered the Council to withdraw or modify some of the directives.

Following the second arbitration, petty disputes continued to rage between Guarnieri and the Council. For example, the Council told Guarnieri not to participate in a seatbelt and truancy program, despite the fact that they were funded by a grant and cost the Borough nothing. The Council also tried to prevent Guarnieri from obtaining insurance for his wife by challenging his marriage certificate, which was signed by Duryea's mayor. Later, the Council tried to stop Guarnieri from receiving overtime payments that were due to him. [footnotes omitted]

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