Potente v. County of Hudson, Civ. No. 96-5709 (DRD) (D. N.J. 12/1/1999), Civ. No. 96-5709 (DRD)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 3th Circuit. United States District Courts. 3th Circuit. District of New Jersey
Writing for the CourtDickinson R. Debevoise
PartiesJOSEPH POTENTE, Plaintiff v. COUNTY OF HUDSON, CARMEN MESSANO, and ROBERT B. MARTIN, Defendants.
Docket NumberCiv. No. 96-5709 (DRD)
Decision Date01 December 1999

Page 1

JOSEPH POTENTE, Plaintiff
v.
COUNTY OF HUDSON, CARMEN MESSANO, and ROBERT B. MARTIN, Defendants.
Civ. No. 96-5709 (DRD)
United States District Court, D. New Jersey.
December 1, 1999.

James M. Mets and Michael J., Weber, Esqs., SCHNEIDER, GOLDBERGER, COHEN, FINN, SOLOMON, LEDER & MONTALBANO, P.C., Kenilworth, New Jersey, Attorneys for Plaintiff.

Francis De Leonardis, Michael L. Dermody, and Jennifer A. Rygiel, Esqs., Hudson County Counsel, Jersey City, New Jersey, Attorneys for Defendants, County of Hudson, Carmen, Messano and Robert B. Martin.

OPINION

DICKINSON R. DEBEVOISE, U.S.S.D.J.


Plaintiff Joseph Potente ("Potente") brought this action challenging his termination as an Investigator with the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office, seeking both equitable relief and damages. Potente alleges a federal cause of action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, as well as pendent state law claims under the New Jersey State Constitution and the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination, against defendants Hudson County ("the County"), County Prosecutor Carmen Messano ("Messano"), and County Chief of Investigations Robert B. Martin ("Chief Martin"). Two summary judgment motions are currently pending before the Court: defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint in its entirety; plaintiff has moved for summary judgment and an award of costs and attorneys' fees. For the reasons set forth herein, defendants' motion will be granted as to plaintiff's federal law claim, and plaintiff's motion will be denied as to that same claim. The remaining causes of action, asserting state law claims, will be dismissed without prejudice pursuant to the provisions of 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c).

STATEMENT OF FACTS

The facts of this case are virtually undisputed among the parties and are well supported by the exhibits presented in support of the motions. Plaintiff Joseph Potente worked as an Investigator with the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office from August, 1982 until his termination on December 7, 1994. Defendants Carmen Messano and Chief Robert Martin were Potente's immediate supervisors in the Prosecutor's Office.

On or about December 28, 1993, plaintiff was injured in an on-duty motor vehicle accident. He was taken to Meadowlands Hospital in Secaucus, New Jersey for initial treatment. Following his release from the hospital, plaintiff began receiving treatment for his injuries from Dr. Teofilo A. Dauhajre, who diagnosed plaintiff as suffering from acute cervical strain and sprain. Dr. Dauhajre determined that plaintiff was disabled from work and prescribed physical therapy sessions, which plaintiff completed on or about February 21, 1994.

Pursuant to a collective bargaining agreement, plaintiff received a medical leave of absence from work, with full pay, including a 30-day extension, until February 25, 1994. On February 28, Chief Martin informed plaintiff that the initial 30-day extension of his leave of absence with full pay had expired on February 24, making plaintiff eligible for temporary workers' compensation benefits only. Plaintiff was advised that his request for an additional extension had been denied.

Plaintiff was examined in connection with his workers' compensation claim on April 21, 1994 by a physician retained by the County, Dr. Jack G. Siegel. Dr. Siegel determined that plaintiff required additional physical therapy, but was otherwise able to return to work at the Prosecutor's Office. Plaintiff was also examined by Dr. Dauhajre on April 20. In a letter to the workers' compensation insurance carrier dated April 22, 1994, Dr. Dauhajre stated that "if the patient demonstrates further improvement on his revaluation in my office on 5/2/94, will consider returning back to his regular duties at work without restrictions." The Workers' Compensation Claims Adjuster set a termination date for plaintiff's benefits of May 3, 1994 and advised plaintiff to return to work on May 4.1 Plaintiff returned to light duty at the Prosecutor's Office on May 20, 1994.

From September 20 to November 17, 1994, plaintiff took a second approved medical leave of absence to receive arthroscopic surgery on his right shoulder. Following the surgery, Dr. Dauhajre certified plaintiff to return to work on December 14, 1994. Plaintiff submitted the certification with a request for an extended leave of absence until December 15, noting that "the reason for the leave of absence is due to the surgery I had on September 20, 1994 and continuing therapy." Lieutenant James Hoppes told plaintiff that he would have to submit a more detailed account of his reasons for this request by November 28. When plaintiff failed to do so, the request was denied by Chief Martin on November 29, 1994. Chief Martin's memorandum advised plaintiff that "you are directed to return to work on Wednesday, November 30, 1994 at 0900 hours. If you choose not to report to work, you have the option of resigning your position with this office. Failure to comply with this directive will result in disciplinary action."

On or about November 30, 1994, plaintiff requested a "Family Leave of Absence" until December 15, 1994. In a memorandum dated November 29, 1994, the Director of Personnel for Hudson County rendered a legal opinion that the County had no further obligations to plaintiff under federal or New Jersey state law. Plaintiff's request for Family Leave was denied by Chief Martin the next day.

Plaintiff did not return to work. By letter dated December 7, 1994, Chief Martin informed plaintiff that he had "been absent without leave or permission since November 18, 1994" and that as a result his employment with the Hudson County Prosecutor's Office would be terminated effective that same day.

Plaintiff alleges that the defendants' conduct respecting his termination constitutes a violation of his right to due process under the Fourteenth...

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