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Briggs v. Town of Rumford

United States District Court, D. Maine

September 30, 2019

LINDA-JEAN BRIGGS, Plaintiff
v.
TOWN OF RUMFORD, et al., Defendants

          DECISION AND ORDER ON MOTION TO DISMISS

          D. Brock Hornby United States District Judge.

         This case challenges the authority of a Maine town's select board to provide in its town manager's employment agreement that it can terminate her without cause. After oral argument on August 8, 2019, and subsequent submissions from the parties, I conclude that the town lacks authority to terminate the town manager without cause. With one exception, I Deny the defendants' motion to dismiss the plaintiff's complaint under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim.

         Factual Background

         The plaintiff's complaint contains the following factual assertions, which I take as true for purposes of ruling on the defendants' motion.

         The Town of Rumford employed the plaintiff, Linda-Jean Briggs, as its town manager. In February of 2018 the parties signed a 3-year employment agreement. Section 4 of that agreement provided: “Town may terminate the employment of BRIGGS pursuant to Chapter 1-A, Section 2 of the Town Ordinances [an Ordinance provision concerning termination of the town manager “for cause”]. In the event of termination by the Select Board without cause, BRIGGS shall be paid a lump sum amount equal to six (6) months salary as liquidated damages.” (Emphasis added).

         In December 2018-January 2019, Rumford first suspended then terminated the town manager without cause and tendered her a check for six months' salary. The town manager declined to cash the check, appealed her termination to the Board of Appeals, and received notice from the Board that it had no jurisdiction to hear her appeal.

         Procedural Background

         The town manager then filed a complaint in this court. She claims that under Maine statutes and a Rumford ordinance, the town cannot suspend or terminate her without cause, notice, and a hearing (Count 1); and that the town's action deprived her of her property interest in employment in violation of the Maine Constitution's due process clause, Art. I, § 6-A (Count 2), and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution (Count 3). The town and its select board members moved to dismiss all counts against them for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted, Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6).

         At the oral argument I raised with the parties some issues concerning the record before me. The parties then stipulated that the copy of the employment agreement attached to the defendants' motion is accurate and authentic and can be considered on the motion, and that the defendants tendered to the town manager the proper lump sum that the employment agreement called for upon termination “without cause.” Without objection, certified copies of the town charter and the relevant ordinance were admitted to satisfy Maine and federal precedents about how a court can consider local ordinances.[1] See, e.g., Summit Realty, Inc. v. Gipe, 315 A.2d 428, 429-30 (Me. 1974); Getty Petroleum Mktg. v. Capital Terminal Co., 391 F.3d 312, 321 (1st Cir. 2004).

         Jurisdiction

         This federal court has jurisdiction over the dispute only if Count 3 concerning Fourteenth Amendment procedural due process adequately states a federal claim.[2] That in turn depends upon whether the Rumford town manager had a property interest in her continued employment to support a federal due process claim (“nor shall any state deprive any person of . . . property without due process of law, ” U.S. Const. Amend. 14). According to the First Circuit: “It is well established that a public employee has a constitutionally protected property interest in his continued employment when he reasonably expects that his employment will continue.” King v. Town of Hanover, 116 F.3d 965, 969 (1st Cir. 1997). “In the presence of a ‘for cause' requirement, the employee typically has a legal basis for thinking he will, in all likelihood, be able to keep the job; in the absence of such a requirement, the state law typically does not provide him with good grounds for such an expectation.” Bennett v. City of Boston, 869 F.2d 19, 21 (1st Cir. 1989). Thus, the central question on the motion to dismiss is whether the town can terminate its town manager only for cause; if so, that is a property interest sufficient to generate federal procedural due process requirements.

         Analysis

         The town manager argues that Maine law-both by statute and by town ordinance-prevents a town from terminating a town manager without cause, and that her employment agreement provision to the contrary is therefore unenforceable.

         Maine has an “enabling” statute (subchapter 2 of chapter 123 of 30-A M.R.S.A., first enacted in 1939) by which municipalities can adopt a “town manager plan” form of government by specifically voting at a town meeting that they are adopting “this plan.”[3] But adoption of the “town manager plan” is not compulsory, [4] and some towns adopted their own town manager government without using the plan, by providing for it in their charter and having the Legislature adopt their charter by Private and Special Law.[5] Rumford was one of the early adopters, [6] well before the existence of the enabling statute and maybe as early as 1927.[7]

         Prodded by my questioning at oral argument, the parties have proffered different, competing, versions of Rumford's current source of authority for its town manager form of government. Counsel for Rumford argues that the town has never adopted the legislature's “town manager plan” as such. If that is correct, the provisions of subchapter 2 of chapter 123, all concerning the “town manager plan, ” would be inapplicable. Instead, the terms of Rumford's town ...


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