Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n

Decision Date20 June 2007
Docket NumberNo. 05-4114.,05-4114.
Citation490 F.3d 265
PartiesAnne GALLI, Appellant v. NEW JERSEY MEADOWLANDS COMMISSION; Susan Bass Levin, in her official and individual capacities.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Third Circuit

Zulima V. Farber, Attorney General of New Jersey, Michele A. Daitz, Deputy Attorney General, Jane A. Greenfogel, Esquire, (Argued), Office of Attorney General of New Jersey, Richard J. Hughes, Justice Complex, Trenton, NJ, for Appellee, Susan Bass Levin.

Before: RENDELL and AMBRO, Circuit Judges BAYLSON,* District Judge.


AMBRO, Circuit Judge.

An apolitical government employee appeals a grant of summary judgment rejecting her claim that she was fired in violation of her First Amendment rights because she failed to support the administration or political party in power. We hold that First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and association protect government employees who lack a political affiliation from political patronage discrimination. We therefore vacate the District Court's grant of summary judgment and remand for application of this legal standard.

I. Factual Background and Procedural History

Anne Galli filed a political patronage discrimination claim against the New Jersey Meadowlands Commission ("Commission") and its Chair, Susan Bass Levin. Galli alleges that she was unlawfully terminated from her position with the Commission because she was neither an active Democrat nor a supporter of then newly elected Democratic Governor James McGreevey.

Galli holds degrees in biology, environmental science, and ecology, and has worked as a naturalist and professor of ornithology. She was hired to serve on the Commission in 1984 during the Republican administration of Governor Thomas Kean. At the time of her termination in 2002, she was the Commission's Director of Environmental Education, earning more than $100,000 annually. During her tenure, Galli claims that she was not registered with a political party and kept her lack of political affiliation private. Galli never shared her political views with her supervisor and was not asked to participate in any partisan political activity.

The Commission—whose charge includes environmental protection, economic development, and solid waste management—is an affiliate of the New Jersey Department of Community Affairs and is governed by a seven-member Board. The Board appoints an Executive Director, who runs the Commission day-to-day. Following Governor McGreevey's election in November 2001, Levin was appointed as the Director of the Department of Community Affairs, and she installed herself as head of the Commission soon thereafter. In July 2002, Robert Ceberio was appointed Executive Director of the Commission.

The Commission has a detailed manual outlining its employee personnel policies. It specifies that three Commission Board members, who comprise the "Personnel Committee," are charged with supervision of personnel matters. With respect to terminations due to "problematic" performance, a written performance improvement plan must be conducted, the termination must be in writing, and the terminated employee must be granted the opportunity for a hearing. Finally, creation of new jobs must be reviewed by the Board.

In March 2002, Executive Director Ceberio met with newly appointed Commissioner Levin to discuss operations and personnel changes. As a result of that meeting, in April 2002 Galli and ten other employees of the Commission—all of whom had been hired during Republican administrations—were fired. A few days prior, Ceberio met with Galli to inform her that she would be terminated. According to Galli, Ceberio stated that she was being fired because the Commission was going in a "different direction"; however, he made no reference to either poor job performance or a Commission-wide reorganization, the two reasons later given by the Commission for Galli's termination. Immediately following this meeting, Galli telephoned Commissioner Eleanore Nissley, a Republican who was serving as Vice Chair of the Commission at the time. According to Galli, Nissley acknowledged that the Commission was "letting Republicans go," and stated by way of explanation that "some Democrat [obviously] wants the spot" and that one has to "pay to play with this administration."1 Galli claims that the Commission's personnel policies with respect to termination were not followed in her case.

Although the eleven employees (including Galli) purportedly were fired as part of a "reorganization" to make the Commission more efficient and cost-effective, it hired eighteen new employees in the year following these terminations. Galli contends that the eighteen new hires were almost all political patrons of the Democratic administration. She also alleges that many of these new hires were unqualified and extensively connected to the administration or the Democratic Party. In particular, she notes that her replacement, Linda Mercurio, formerly was a tax attorney with no background in environmental science or education. Galli asserts that Mercurio had strong ties to the Democratic Party establishment, having previously run for office twice on the Democratic ticket, which Galli believes explains Mercurio's hiring. Galli, on the other hand, had never before received negative feedback from her superiors, and, in fact, helped the Environmental Education Division earn an award of excellence that was bestowed shortly after she was fired.

In February 2003, Galli filed a complaint under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against both the Commission and Levin in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey, alleging that her termination amounted to political patronage discrimination in violation of her First Amendment rights. The Commission and Levin responded by filing motions for summary judgment. In August 2005, the District Court granted these motions and dismissed Galli's complaint, holding that Galli could not establish that she had engaged in constitutionally protected activity because she was unaffiliated with any political party and disinclined to be active politically. In addition, the Court held that the Commission had no knowledge of Galli's political affiliation or lack thereof; thus political considerations could not have motivated her termination.

Galli appeals to us, arguing that the rights to freedom of speech and association guaranteed by the First Amendment protect employees like her (who lack political affiliation) from political patronage discrimination.

II. Jurisdiction and Standard of Review

The District Court had jurisdiction in this case under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, and we have appellate jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

Our review of a District Court's grant of summary judgment is plenary. See, e.g., Slagle v. County of Clarion, 435 F.3d 262, 263 (3d Cir.2006). A grant of summary judgment is proper when the moving party has established that there is no genuine dispute of material fact and that "the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c). A fact is material if it might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). A court should view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and make all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Hugh v. Butler County Family YMCA, 418 F.3d 265, 267 (3d Cir.2005).

To prevail on a motion for summary judgment, the non-moving party must show specific facts such that a reasonable jury could find in that party's favor, thereby establishing a genuine issue of fact for trial. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). "While the evidence that the non-moving party presents may be either direct or circumstantial, and need not be as great as a preponderance, the evidence must be more than a scintilla." Hugh, 418 F.3d at 267 (citing Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251, 106 S.Ct. 2505).

Finally, where the First Amendment is involved, we "undertake exacting review of the whole record with a particularly close focus on facts that are determinative of a constitutional right." Armour v. County of Beaver, Pa., 271 F.3d 417, 420 (3d Cir.2001) (citing New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 376 U.S. 254, 285, 84 S.Ct. 710, 11 L.Ed.2d 686 (1964)).

III. Discussion
A. Political Patronage Discrimination

Political patronage is a practice "as old as the American Republic." Boyle v. County of Allegheny Pa., 139 F.3d 386, 394 (3d Cir.1998). However, the Supreme Court has set limits to its use, emphasizing that "[t]o the victor belong only those spoils that may be constitutionally obtained." Rutan v. Republican Party of Ill., 497 U.S. 62, 64, 110 S.Ct. 2729, 111 L.Ed.2d 52 (1990).

The Court first clarified these constitutional constraints in Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), and Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574 (1980), holding that termination of public employees because of their political affiliation violates the First Amendment unless the position at issue involves policymaking. See Elrod, 427 U.S. at 359, 373, 96 S.Ct. 2673 (concluding that conditioning public employment on support for the political party in power "unquestionably inhibits protected belief and association"); Branti, 445 U.S. at 513-17, 100 S.Ct. 1287. In general, "an employee's exercise of First Amendment rights outweighs the government's interest in maintaining a system of political patronage." Stephens v. Kerrigan, 122 F.3d 171, 176 (3d Cir.1997) (citing Elrod, 427 U.S. at 372-73, 96 S.Ct. 2673, and Branti, 445 U.S. at 514-15, 100 S.Ct. 1287). The...

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