Pennsylvania Police Chief’s Case Heads Further Down Federal Court System

Charles Guarnieri is the Police Chief of Duryea Borough, Pennsylvania. When the Borough terminated him, Guarnieri filed a grievance under the collective bargaining agreement that covered him. An arbitrator found that though Guarnieri engaged in misconduct, the penalty of termination was too harsh and ordered his reinstatement after a disciplinary suspension.

Thereafter, the Borough Council issued 11 directives instructing Guarnieri in the performance of his duties. Guarnieri challenged the directives through filing a second grievance, and filed a free speech lawsuit claiming that the directives were in retaliation for his “petitioning” the Borough through the filing of the earlier grievance. Guarnieri’s case made it to the United States Supreme Court, which in 2011 held that “a government employee’s claim under the petition clause is subject to the public concern test applicable to a government employee who files a free speech clause claim.” In other words, Guarnieri’s prior grievance would be protected by the First Amendment only to the extent the grievance covered matters of public concern.

The Supreme Court sent the case back down to the federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals for disposition. In the Third Circuit, the Borough cited language in the Supreme Court’s opinion to the effect that a “petition that involves nothing more than a complaint about a change in the employee’s own duties does not relate to a matter of public concern.”

In opposition, Guarnieri argued that his termination was a matter of great actual concern to the residents of the Borough, and referred to newspaper reports of the dispute.

The Third Circuit declined to issue a ruling in the case, sending it back down to the trial court for a further hearing. The Third Circuit commented that “we are not prepared to hold on this meager record that the dismissal of a police chief in a small town can never be a matter of public concern in that community. It might be, for example, if the police chief were dismissed because he disfavored one race over another, or because he overlooked actions of a sexual predator. We do not suggest that there is any such issue working in this matter, but merely note that not all dismissals of government employees would necessarily fall on one side or another of the rule. As the Supreme Court itself recognized, it would depend upon the circumstances.”

Guarnieri v. Duryea Borough, 2011 WL 3288377 (3d Cir. 2011).

This article appears in the November 2011 issue.