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West v. Hoover

United States District Court, D. Rhode Island

January 11, 2016

WARREN WEST, Plaintiff,
THOMAS HOOVER, et al., Defendants.


WILLIAM E. SMITH, Chief District Judge.

Before the Court is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 52) ("Defendants' Motion" or "Defs.' MSJ"). Plaintiff Warren West ("West") filed an Opposition (ECF No. 55) ("Pl.'s Opp'n") and Defendants filed a Reply (ECF No. 56) ("Defs.' Reply"). After careful consideration, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED for the reasons set forth below.

I. Background[1]

West is the former Finance Director for the Town of Coventry (the "Town"). (Defs.' Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Defs.' SUF") ¶ 1, ECF No. 53.) On July 7, 2010, the Town suspended him with pay while it investigated an issue between the Town and the Coventry School Department concerning funding for the school department. (Ex. 2, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-4.) The details of the funding issue are not material to this dispute, but briefly, Rhode Island law at the time required municipalities to provide at least the same amount of local funds to their school systems from year to year. (Ex. 5 pp. 7-8, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-7; Ex. A, Pl.'s Statement of Undisputed Facts ("Pl.'s SUF"), ECF No. 62-1.) The required funding level was termed "maintenance of effort." (Id.) In mid-2010, the Coventry School Superintendent believed that the Town impermissibly cut school funding by $225, 000 and requested that the Rhode Island Department of Education ("RIDE") investigate. (See Ex. 4, Pl.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 55-4; Ex. 5, Pl.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 55-5.)

After RIDE commenced an investigation into the Town's maintenance of effort funding, the Town Council hired Ernest Almonte ("Almonte"), a private auditor, to explore West's involvement in the issue. (Defs.' SUF ¶¶ 3-4, ECF No. 53.) On August 12, 2010, Almonte completed his investigation and filed his report with the Town (the "Almonte Report" or "Report"). (Id. ¶ 5.) The Report concluded that West "did not provide proper oversight and due diligence in the accounting treatment" of $225, 000 in State housing aid that was initially reserved for school department capital projects. (Ex. 5 p. 12, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-7.) It also concluded that West "should have recognized the accounting problem" and "revealed it... to the State, and worked with the special legal counsel to clarify the situation...." (Id.)

On August 13, 2010, Thomas Hoover ("Hoover"), Coventry's Town Manager, forwarded West a copy of the Almonte Report. (See Ex. 6, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-8.) In a letter accompanying the Report, Hoover indicated that "[b]ased on the [Report], [his] own observations, discussions with Town employees, discussions with financial and legal advisors to the Town... and [his] other investigations, " he did not have confidence in West's job performance and was considering terminating West's employment. (Id.) However, prior to taking any employment action, Hoover offered West an informal hearing to respond to Hoover's letter, the charges set forth therein, and the issues raised in the Almonte Report. (Id.)[2]

West availed himself of the informal hearing which took place on August 20, 2010 at the law office of the Town's Solicitor, Patrick Rogers ("Rogers"). (Defs.' SUF ¶ 7, ECF No. 53.) West attended with his attorney; Hoover and Rogers attended for the Town. (Id.) While West could not cross-examine individuals about the Almonte Report, West did have the opportunity to present his side of the story, suggest areas that the Town may want to investigate, and point out discrepancies in the allegations against him. (Ex. D, Pl.'s SUF, ECF No. 62-4.) Indeed, West gave the Town a line-by-line opposition to the Almonte Report at the hearing. (Pl.'s Opp'n 31, ECF No. 55; Ex. 52, Pl.'s Opp'n, ECF No. 55-55.)

Hoover terminated West's employment on August 20, 2010, shortly after the hearing. (See Ex. 8, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-10; Pl.'s SUF ¶ 7, ECF No. 62.) The "Termination Notice" explained that "based on the investigation and report referenced in [the Town's] letter to [West] dated August 13, 2010 and following the informal due process hearing of today with [West's] attorney, " West's employment was terminated. (Ex. 8, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-10.) The notice also advised West that, pursuant to Section 51-20(D) of the Coventry Code of Ordinances, he had two weeks to request a hearing before the Town Personnel Board (the "Board"). (Id.)

West exercised his right to a hearing, and the hearing took place over five days between September 23, 2010 and March 24, 2011. (Defs.' SUF ¶ 13, ECF No. 53; Ex. 13, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-15.) The Board, reconstituted on July 19, 2010, was composed of three members, two of whom were affiliated with the Republican Party, one of whom was not affiliated with any political party. (Ex. J p. 1, Pl.'s SUF, ECF No. 62-10.)[3] Patrick Rogers acted as the impartial hearing officer for the first two days of the hearing; Frederick G. Tobin acted as the hearing officer for the remaining three sessions. (Ex. 13, Defs.' SUF, ECF No. 52-15.) Pursuant to the Town's Personnel Ordinance, the Board was tasked with making an advisory recommendation to the appointing authority, in this case, the Town Manager, as to whether West proved by clear and convincing evidence that his termination "was based on political, religious or racial prejudice or that the appointing authority failed to notify the employee in accordance [with the required procedures]." (Defs.' SUF ¶¶ 10, 12, ECF No. 53; Ex. 13, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-15.)

During the hearing, each side admitted numerous exhibits and each called two witnesses. (Ex. 13, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-15.) The Town called Hoover and Almonte. (Id.) West had the opportunity to cross-examine both witnesses. (See Defs.' MSJ 14, ECF No. 52-1.) West also called Kenneth Cloutier, a former Coventry town councilman and Cheryl George, the Coventry Town Clerk. (Ex. 13, Defs.' MSJ, ECF No. 52-15.) After the hearing, on July 28, 2011, the Board determined that there was not clear and convincing evidence that the Town had acted with religious, racial or political prejudice in terminating West's employment. (Id.) The Board also determined that there was clear and convincing evidence that the Town notified West of the reasons for his termination in accordance with Town policy. (Id.) Based on these findings, the Board dismissed West's appeal. (Id.)

West filed this lawsuit in Rhode Island Superior Court on July 26, 2012, and the Town subsequently removed it to this Court due to the presence of a federal question. (ECF No. 1.) After failed motions to dismiss West's claims (ECF Nos. 19, 22, 23) and numerous discovery extensions, Defendants sought leave to file the present motion (ECF No. 48), which the Court granted (Text Order from 11/3/14 granting ECF No. 48). Defendants then moved for summary judgment as to all of West's claims. (ECF No. 52.) For the reasons explained below, the Court grants Defendants' motion.

II. Legal Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). An issue of fact is only considered "genuine' if it may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.'" Cadle Co. v. Hayes, 116 F.3d 957, 960 (1st Cir. 1997) (quoting Maldonado-Denis v. Castillo-Rodriguez, 23 F.3d 576, 581 (1st Cir. 1994)). When deciding a motion for summary judgment, the court must "examine[] the entire record in the light most ...

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