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Charles v. Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, Inc.

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Harrisonburg Division

September 18, 2014

PHILIP A. CHARLES, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
FRONT ROYAL VOLUNTEER FIRE AND RESCUE DEPARTMENT, INC., et al., Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL F. URBANSKI, District Judge.

Pending before the court are Defendants Front Royal Volunteer Fire and Rescue Department, Inc. ("the Fire Department") and David Santmeyers' ("Santmeyers") motion to dismiss Count I(B) of the amended complaint, Dkt. No. 34, and motion for summary judgment, Dkt. No. 45. The matter has been fully briefed, and the court is prepared to rule. For the reasons that follow, the court will deny defendants' motion for summary judgment and motion to dismiss count I(B) of the amended complaint.

I.

Plaintiffs, Philip A. Charles ("Charles") and David M. Ellinger ("Ellinger"), allege that the Fire Department is a Virginia non-stock corporation organized in the Commonwealth of Virginia and a state actor. Santmyers is the President of the Fire Department. Charles was a member of the Fire Department and also served as the Secretary of the Corporation. Ellinger is a member of the Fire Department and also served as Treasurer. Am. Compl., Dkt. No. 31, at 2.

Plaintiffs grew concerned about reductions in Fire Department resources and particularly with a "Cost-Recovery Program" designed to allow Warren County to recover funds for use of Fire Department resources. Under that program, the Fire Department was entitled to a share of those funds, and plaintiffs noticed that the Fire Department received less money from the county each year. Id. at 4. When plaintiffs raised these concerns, they faced "staunch resistance" from some other Board members, including Santmyers. "Due to the harsh reaction of the Board and the President, [Charles] resigned from his secretary position during the summer of 2012." Id . In March of 2013, Charles invited a local newspaper reporter to attend a public meeting of the Fire Department during which board members discussed the Department's funding and resources. Charles and Ellinger also approached a member of the Front Royal Town Council about the Department's funding and resource issues. Additionally, Charles, with Ellinger's assistance, sent a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request to Warren County seeking information related to the Cost Recovery Program.

Plaintiffs allege that, in response to these actions, the Fire Department and Santmyers removed Charles as a member. Ellinger sent a letter to the Board on June 18, 2013, outlining his opposition to Charles' removal and resigned as Treasurer. Plaintiffs further allege that, in response to that letter, the Fire Department suspended Ellinger from membership for sixty days. Moreover, plaintiffs allege that the Fire Department has simply "continued the suspension indefinitely" despite "numerous opportunities to have a vote on [Ellinger's] membership status." Id. at 5.

In Count I(A) of the amended complaint, plaintiffs claim the Fire Department's retaliatory actions-stripping Charles of his membership and "indefinitely" suspending Ellinger-violated their First Amendment right to free speech because the Fire Department is a state actor, the plaintiffs were speaking on issues of "public importance", and the retaliation was "directly and proximately related to the exercise of the [p]laintiffs' right to free speech." Id. at 6.

Count I(B) alleges that Ellinger's "indefinite suspension" amounts to a due process violation because Ellinger has a property interest in the benefits he receives as a member of the Fire Department. Members of the Fire Department receive personal property tax relief from Warren County, personal property tax relief from the Town of Front Royal, a "locality vehicle decal" at no charge, use of the Fire Department's "facilities for washing and maintaining... personal vehicles" and free use of the fire hall for events. Id. at 8. Specifically, Ellinger alleges that he has lost an average benefit of $268.00 from the Warren County tax relief, an average benefit of $31.00 from the Town of Front Royal tax relief, and $25.00 per year for his locality vehicle decal. Ellinger also alleges he has lost an estimated $120.00 benefit because he can no longer use the Fire Department's facilities for washing and maintaining his vehicle and a $1200.00 benefit because he can no longer use the Fire Hall that he claims he used for events once every three years. Id.

III.

A.

Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a), the court must "grant summary judgment 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); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986); Glynn v. EDO Corp. , 710 F.3d 209, 213 (4th Cir. 2013). When making this determination, the court should consider "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with... [any] affidavits" filed by the parties. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 322. Whether a fact is material depends on the relevant substantive law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). "Only disputes over facts that might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment. Factual disputes that are irrelevant or unnecessary will not be counted." Id . (citation omitted). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex , 477 U.S. at 323. If that burden has been met, the non-moving party must then come forward and establish the specific material facts in dispute to survive summary judgment. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp. , 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986).

In determining whether a genuine issue of material fact exists, the court views the facts and draws all reasonable inferences in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Glynn , 710 F.3d at 213 (citing Bonds v. Leavitt , 629 F.3d 369, 380 (4th Cir. 2011)). Indeed, "[i]t is an axiom that in ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the evidence of the nonmovant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in [her] favor.'" McAirlaids, Inc. v. Kimberly-Clark Corp., No. 13-2044, 2014 WL 2871492, at *1 (4th Cir. June 25, 2014) (internal alteration omitted) (citing Tolan v. Cotton , 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1863 (2014) (per curiam)). Moreover, "[c]redibility determinations, the weighing of the evidence, and the drawing of legitimate inferences from the facts are jury functions, not those of a judge...." Anderson , 477 U.S. at 255. However, the non-moving party "must set forth specific facts that go beyond the mere existence of a scintilla of evidence.'" Glynn , 710 F.3d at 213 (quoting Anderson , 477 U.S. at 252). Instead, the non-moving party must show that "there is sufficient evidence favoring the non[-]moving party for a jury to return a verdict for that party." Res. Bankshares Corp. v. St. Paul Mercury Ins. Co. , 407 F.3d 631, 635 (4th Cir. 2005) (quoting Anderson , 477 U.S. at 249). "In other words, to grant summary judgment the Court must determine that no reasonable jury could find for the non[-]moving party on the evidence before it." Moss v. Parks Corp. , 985 F.2d 736, 738 (4th Cir. 1993) (citing Perini Corp. v. Perini Const., Inc. , 915 F.2d 121, 124 (4th Cir. 1990)).

B.

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