Golem v. Village of Put-in-Bay

Decision Date30 August 2002
Docket NumberNo. 3:00CV7740.,3:00CV7740.
Citation222 F.Supp.2d 924
PartiesThomas GOLEM, Plaintiff, v. VILLAGE OF PUT-IN-BAY, et al., Defendant.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio

Paul W. Flowers, Cleveland, OH, W. Craig Bashein, Bashein & Bashein, Cleveland, OH, for Thomas Golden.

Mark D. Katz, Ulmer & Berne, Cleveland, OH, Mark E. Porter, Ulmer & Berne, Cleveland, OH, for Village of Put-In-Bay, Ohio, John W. Blatt.

ORDER

CARR, District Judge.

Plaintiff Thomas Golem brings this action against Defendants Village of Put-In-Bay and Mayor John W. Blatt, claiming breach of contract, defamation, and a violation of plaintiff's civil rights. This court has jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367. Pending are defendants' motion for summary judgment and plaintiff's cross-motion for summary judgment.

For the following reasons, defendants' motion shall be denied as to the breach of contract claim, the § 1983 claim for deprivation of a property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment, and the defamation claim. Defendants' motion shall be granted as to plaintiff's § 1983 claim for deprivation of a liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff's motion shall be granted as to the breach of contract claim and the § 1983 claim for deprivation of a property interest under the Fourteenth Amendment. Plaintiff's motion shall be denied as to the defamation claim and his § 1983 claim for deprivation of a liberty interest under the Fourteenth Amendment.

BACKGROUND

In May, 1999, plaintiff was hired by Put-In-Bay as a seasonal police officer. He was promoted to a year-round investigator in July, 1999. After approximately six months of probation, in January, 2000, plaintiff was told he would be hired on a permanent basis and he would have to quit his other job with the Bratenahl Police Department.

Before plaintiff was hired, Put-In-Bay adopted a Policy and Procedures Manual, which established obligations of employees and officials of Put-In-Bay. The Manual was approved by Mayor Blatt. Plaintiff alleges that he was led to believe his employment would be governed by and subject to the Manual.

In a letter dated July 9, 2000, and issued to Chief of Police James F. Lang, plaintiff alleges that Mayor Blatt falsely accused plaintiff of abuse of power, theft of Put-In-Bay resources, and commission of an official lie. Plaintiff alleges that Mayor Blatt publicly announced these findings without providing plaintiff with a meaningful hearing or opportunity to be heard. Police Chief Lang terminated plaintiff approximately two days after receiving the letter.

Plaintiff asserts three counts in his complaint: 1) breach of contract for violating his rights under the Manual, thereby depriving him of wages and benefits, irreparably harming his career in law enforcement, and causing him to suffer anxiety, distress, and aggravation; 2) defamation for purposefully and maliciously disparaging plaintiff, thereby causing plaintiff humiliation, emotional distress, mental anguish, loss of career opportunities and earning capacity, and impairment of reputation; and 3) civil right violations for depriving plaintiff of his constitutionally protected property and liberty interests.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment must be entered "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). The moving party always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the record which demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The burden then shifts to the nonmoving party who "must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 250, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986) (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 56(e)).

Once the burden of production shifts, the party opposing summary judgment cannot rest on its pleadings or merely reassert its previous allegations. It is insufficient "simply [to] show that there is some metaphysical doubt as to the material facts." Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986). Rather, Rule 56(e) "requires the nonmoving party to go beyond the [unverified] pleadings" and present some type of evidentiary material in support of its position. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548.

In deciding the motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the non-moving party will be believed as true, all doubts will be resolved against the moving party, all evidence will be construed in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and all reasonable inferences will be drawn in the non-moving party's favor. Eastman Kodak Co. v. Technical Servs., Inc., 504 U.S. 451, 456, 112 S.Ct. 2072, 119 L.Ed.2d 265 (1992). Summary judgment shall be rendered only if the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. FED. R. CIV. P. 56(c).

DISCUSSION
I. Breach of Contract

Plaintiff claims the parties entered into a binding contract through the employment manual. Plaintiff claims defendants breached the contract when they terminated him.

A. Whether the Employment Manual Constitutes a Contract

Plaintiff claims that defendants violated rights and protections provided in the Manual when defendants terminated him without following a specific disciplinary procedure.1 Doc. 1 at ¶ 12. Plaintiff argues the Manual and his signing of an acknowledgment of the Manual demonstrate a meeting of the minds which bound all parties to the Manual's terms and conditions. Plaintiff notes that the Manual contains no disclaimers or other indication that the Manual does not create a contract or is merely a guide.

Defendants contend that the Manual does not create a contract. Defendants argue:

Even a cursory review of the Manual reveals that its provision [sic] address only the internal procedures of the Department.... It is replete with references to the Chief's authority in handling disciplinary matters. In no way does it limit the Mayor's authority to act pursuant to the Revised Code. Only where the Chief determines disciplinary action is necessary do the Manual provisions control.

Doc. 15 at 11 (citation omitted).

Defendants further argue the Manual contains general statements which cannot create a contract.

In Ohio, the general rule is that employment relationships are at-will. Mers v. Dispatch Printing Co., 19 Ohio St.3d 100, 103-04, 483 N.E.2d 150 (1985). One exception to the employment-at-will doctrine arises when the facts and circumstances of the employment relationship create a contract that alters the at-will nature of the employment. Id.

For a personnel manual to alter an at-will employment relationship, there must be a meeting of the minds. Bartlett v. Daniel Drake Mem'l Hosp., 75 Ohio App.3d 334, 338, 599 N.E.2d 403 (1991) ("While personnel manuals may be important in establishing the terms and conditions of employment, absent the necessary mutual assent or meeting of the minds by the employer and employee to establish employment-termination rights, handbooks or other supplementary manuals or materials merely constitute unilateral statements of company rules and regulations.") (citation omitted); Brandenburger v. Hilti, Inc., 52 Ohio App.3d 21, 24-25, 556 N.E.2d 212 (1989) ("`The parties must have a distinct and common intention which is communicated by each party to the other [party].'") (citing Cohen & Co. v. Messina, 24 Ohio App.3d 22, 24, 492 N.E.2d 867 (1985)) (emphasis omitted).

Neither party points to a disputed issue of predicate fact. While defendants are correct in that an employer's general policy statements typically do not create a contract, the Manual in this case contains very specific requirements for employment and discipline. The Manual lists specific acts constituting minor infractions, intermediate infractions, and serious infractions, and specifies corresponding types of discipline. Doc. 17 Ex. H at 9-2. Similar provisions have been held to be contractual in nature. See, e.g., Sowards v. Norbar, Inc., 78 Ohio App.3d 545, 551, 605 N.E.2d 468 (1992) ("Significantly, the language used in the handbook with respect to `formal discipline' is both specific and mandatory, indicating that the formal discipline policy was intended to be more than a mere guideline for discipline.").

While the Manual allows the employer unilaterally to amend the Manual, the Manual does not disclaim the creation of a contract or state that it simply is a guide. Doc. 17 at Ex. H. The absence of such disclaimer manifests Put-In-Bay's intent to be bound by the Manual.

Police Chief Lang and Captain Beverly Adair acknowledged their understanding that the Manual was binding on Put-in-Bay. Doc. 17 Ex. D at 36, 39-40; Doc. 17 Ex. G at 11-12. Such testimony demonstrates Put-In-Bay's intent to be bound by the Manual. See, e.g., Sowards, 78 Ohio App.3d at 551, 605 N.E.2d 468 (Testimony by the company supervisor and company dispatcher that the company strictly adhered to the company handbook and expected employees to comply with it demonstrated the company's intent to be bound by the handbook.).

Plaintiff signed an acknowledgment on May 17, 2000, stating:

I, Thomas Golem, have hereby received, read, and understand the Polices and Procedures of the Put-in-Bay Police Department. I fully understand that any violation of these rules may result in my dismissal from Put-in-Bay Police Department with disciplinary action by the Chief of Police, Mayor,...

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