One Council Member’s Improper Motive Does Not Void Entire Council’s Termination Decision

Laura Watson was a police officer for the Borough of Susquehanna, Pennsylvania. Michael Matis was president and William Perry, Jr. was vice-president of the Borough’s Council, which makes decisions regarding disciplining or terminating Borough police officers. Such decisions require a majority vote of the Council members present.

In May 2008, Watson brought charges against William Perry, Sr., father of Perry, Jr., for filing false reports. Watson provided sworn testimony in connection with the charges in July 2008. Perry, Sr. eventually pled guilty to the charges against him. Shortly thereafter, Watson learned that her Section 8 housing assistance form had been seen by some members of the Council.

Watson believed the disclosure of this form violated her rights and confronted the Secretary-Treasurer of the Council, Ann Stewart, who was in charge of the housing forms. According to Stewart, Watson grew angry and threatened her. The Council called a special meeting to address the incident between Watson and Stewart. At this meeting, Watson again became angry and aggressive. Six members of the Council, including Perry, Jr. and Matis, voted unanimously to terminate Watson.

Watson sued the Borough, Perry, Jr., and Matis, claiming that she was retaliated against for exercising her First Amendment right to speech. In May 2012, a jury rendered a verdict in favor of all Defendants, except Perry, Jr. The jury found that Perry, Jr. had voted to terminate Watson in retaliation for her testimony against his father.

The federal Third Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the jury’s verdict. The Court found that “Watson cannot establish the required causal link in order to hold an individual decision maker liable when less than a majority of the decision-making body acted for an impermissible retaliatory reason. Because the jury found that Perry, Jr. was the only Council member who acted for an impermissible purpose, and the votes of a majority of Council members are required to terminate Watson, Perry, Jr.’s vote alone cannot establish the causal link between Watson’s protected activity and her termination.”

Watson v. Borough of Susquehanna, 2013 WL 3803893 (3d Cir. 2013).