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Jaronik v. Town of Lakeville

United States District Court, N.D. Indiana, South Bend Division

March 2, 2017



          William C. Lee, Judge United States District Court

         This matter is before the Court on the motion for summary judgment filed by Defendant Town of Lakeville (DE 19). Plaintiff Richard Jaronik filed a response in opposition (DE 23) and Lakeville filed a reply (DE 26). For the reasons discussed below, the motion is TAKEN UNDER ADVISEMENT. The PARTIES ARE DIRECTED to file additional briefs addressing only the issue of whether this Court has subject matter jurisdiction over this case. Defendant Lakeview shall file its brief within 30 days of the date of this Opinion and Order[1], Plaintiff Jaronik shall file his brief (either in support of or in opposition to removal) within 15 days from the filing of Lakeville's brief, and Lakeville shall file its reply brief (if necessary) within seven days of the filing of Jaronik's response. Should the parties conclude that this Court does not have subject matter jurisdiction over this case, they should file a joint motion to remand this case to the St. Joseph Circuit Court.


         “It is a fundamental precept that federal courts are courts of limited jurisdiction. The limits upon federal jurisdiction, whether imposed by the Constitution or by Congress, must be neither disregarded nor evaded.” Owen Equip. & Erection Co. v. Kroger, 437 U.S. 365, 374 (1978). The “limits upon federal jurisdiction” are many, but subject matter jurisdiction is a threshold one-so much so that “[e]very court has an independent responsibility to determine in every case whether it has subject matter jurisdiction and to dismiss the case if it concludes it does not.” Hertel v. Sweet, 2007 WL 2404804 at *1 (E.D. Wis. Aug. 17, 2007) (citing Pratt Cent. Park Ltd. v. Dames & Moore, Inc., 60 F.3d 350, 352-54 (7th Cir. 1995) and Ross v. Inter-Ocean Ins. Co., 693 F.2d 659, 660 (7th Cir. 1982)). “‘[N]ot only may the federal courts police subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte, they must.'” Id. (quoting Hay v. Ind. State Bd. of Tax Com'rs, 312 F.3d 876, 879 (7th Cir. 2002)). If a district court determines that subject matter jurisdiction is lacking in a removed case, the case must be remanded to state court. See 28 U.S.C. § 1447(c) (“If at any time before final judgment it appears that the district court lacks subject matter jurisdiction, the case shall be remanded.”). After careful review of the allegations in Jaronik's Complaint, and consideration of the arguments advanced by both sides on the motion for summary judgment, this Court is left with serious doubts about its authority to hear this case. If subject matter jurisdiction exists in this case the Court can't find it, and thus turns matters back to the parties for enlightenment.

         A somewhat detailed discussion of the claims presented in Jaronik's Complaint, and the parties' respective arguments presented in their briefs on the motion for summary judgment, is necessary to elucidate the Court's concerns even though the Court cannot, given the potential lack of jurisdiction, reach the merits of those claims or arguments. This jurisdictional issue has not raised its head in this case until the parties briefed the motion for summary judgment. This Court can (and must) examine the entire record-including the briefs and any evidence submitted with them, whether or not they specifically address subject matter jurisdiction-to satisfy itself that it has the authority to hear this case in the first place. As another district court explained:

[A] court may look beyond the complaint and “view whatever evidence has been submitted on the issue to determine whether in fact subject matter jurisdiction exists.” Alicea-Hernandez v. Catholic Bishop of Chi., 320 F.3d 698, 701 (7th Cir. 2003) (citation omitted); see also Hay v. Ind. State Bd. of Tax Comm'rs, 312 F.3d 876, 879 (7th Cir. 2002) (“[U]pon a challenge to the court's jurisdiction by a party, the court should conduct a careful inquiry and make a conclusive determination whether it has subject matter jurisdiction or not. . . . We conclude that the district court had not only the right, but the duty to look beyond the allegations of the complaint to determine that it had jurisdiction [.]” (citation omitted).). In evaluating subject matter jurisdiction, the court can consider “summary judgment-type evidence such as affidavits and deposition testimony, ” as long as it does not use this evidence “to ‘pre-try' the case[.]” CC Indus., Inc. v. ING/Reliastar Life Ins. Co., 266 F.Supp.2d 813, 815-16 (N.D. Ill. 2003) (citation omitted) (considering whether requirements of diversity jurisdiction were satisfied). The Court can consider whatever evidence “sheds light on the situation which existed when the case was removed.” Harmon v. OKI Sys., 115 F.3d 477, 480 (7th Cir. 1997).

Brokaw v. Boeing Co., 137 F.Supp.3d 1082, 1091-92 (N.D. Ill. 2015). In this case, the issue of subject matter jurisdiction is raised sua sponte, rather than by motion of a party, but that too is proper and mandated. “[A] federal district court . . . has an obligation to review its own subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte and must dismiss the case if it finds that it lacks jurisdiction.” Michon v. Ugarte, 2017 WL 622236, at *4 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 15, 2017) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(3) and Hammes v. AAMCO Transmissions, 33 F.3d 774, 778 (7th Cir. 1994)) (additional citations omitted); see also, Kindra Lake Towning, L.P. v. Donat Ins. Servs., LLC, 2017 WL 622224 at *3 (N.D. Ill. Feb. 15, 2017) (quoting Hawxhurst v. Pettibone Corp., 40 F.3d 175, 179 (7th Cir. 1994)) (“‘Subject matter jurisdiction cannot be waived and may be challenged by a party or raised sua sponte by the court at any point in the proceedings.'”).

         The Court begins with the allegations contained in Plaintiff's Complaint. Richard Jaronik was a deputy marshal for the Town of Lakeville. Complaint, p. 1. On August 2, 2014, Jaronik talked to Martha Tyler, a member and then-acting president of the town council, and discussed “some issues he believed he was experiencing at the department.” Id., p. 2. Jaronik claims he also “proceeded to express various issues he believed constituted significant problems at the operational level of the department.” Id. Jaronik alleges that Ms. Tyler became “defensive” and “unreasonable” while he was expressing his views, and that she suddenly said “I accept your resignation[, ]” even though Jaronik contends he never offered his resignation and had no intention of resigning. Id., p. 2. Jaronik was ill the next day, August 3, and took the day off work to recuperate. Id. On August 4, 2014, Jaronik received communications from colleagues asking why he had quit his job, and Jaronik responded by telling them he did not quit, that he took the previous day off due to illness, and that he was returning to work. Id. Jaronik then contacted Ms. Tyler again, they engaged in the same debate about whether Jaronik had resigned, and Jaronik asked “so I am fired, then?” Id. Ms. Tyler allegedly responded “call it as you want, but you are done and don't come in anymore.” Id. Jaronik asserts that “On August 6, 2014, [he] was served with a certified letter informing him that his employment with the Lakeville Police Department was terminated because his ‘resignation, ' was ‘accepted.'” Id., p. 3.

         Based on those facts, Jaronik asserts three claims against Lakeville.[2] In Count II of his Complaint, Jaronik pleads a claim for “violation of due process, ” contending that he had “a property interest in his employment” as a deputy marshal that was taken from him in violation of his rights to due process. Id., pp. 3-4. In Count III, Jaronik pleads a claim for “wrongful discharge, ” and/or a claim for “retaliation.” Id., pp. 4-5. The Count is titled “Wrongful Discharge, ” but Jaronik states that the “termination [of] Mr. Jaronik's employment constitutes wrongful discharge and, specifically, was retaliation for Mr. Jaronik's raising issues about the police department.” Id., pp. 4-5. In Count IV, Jaronik pleads a state law claim for defamation, alleging that Lakeville “represent[ed] to the public and police department in both written and oral fashion” that Jaronik had resigned his position as a police officer when in fact he had not done so. Id., p. 5. Jaronik requests “compensatory damages, punitive damages, special damages, lost wages, damages for lost future employment, attorney's fees, [and] costs[.]” Id., p. 6. Jaronik filed this lawsuit in the St. Joseph Circuit Court on December 8, 2015, and Lakeville removed it to this Court on December 29, 2015. See Complaint (DE 2); Notice of Removal (DE 1).

         With that summary of the facts and claims in mind, the Court turns to the parties' arguments presented in their briefs. Lakeville argues that Jaronik's “claims are wholly without merit. He was not entitled to any due process protections and [he] was not discharged, he resigned. Additionally, there was no publication of a defamatory statement and any statements concerning his employment status are protected by the common interest privilege.” Defendant's Memorandum in Support of Motion for Summary Judgment (DE 20), p. 1. As to Jaronik's due process claim specifically, Lakeville argues that Jaronik has no legal foundation for such a claim. While Lakeville acknowledges that law enforcement officers are afforded due process rights under Indiana Code § 36-8-3-4, it insists that those protections are only available to officers who are terminated for disciplinary reasons and, since Jaronik voluntarily resigned from his employment (according to Lakeville), the provisions of that section are not invoked. Id., pp. 6-7.

         Lakeville argues that “it is well established that a police officer who voluntarily resigns waives his due process rights under Indiana Code section 36-8-3-4. . . . In the present case, Plaintiff was not terminated for disciplinary reasons. His employment ended with Lakeville because he notified Lakeville he was resigning. . . . Because Plaintiff was not terminated for disciplinary reasons, he was not entitled to the protections of Indiana Code § 36-8-3-4.” Id., p. 7.

         Jaronik responds by arguing that he does have a valid legal foundation for his due process claim and that it is Lakeville's argument that is flawed. Jaronik correctly points out that Lakeville's argument that I.C. § 36-8-3-4 does not apply to this case is based on the contention that Jaronik voluntarily resigned, which he adamantly maintains he did not. Jaronik argues that Lakeville's position “relies upon material facts that are in clear dispute because: a) Jaronik states he never resigned; and b) absent the alleged ‘resignation' the only conclusion is Jaronik was terminated for disciplinary reasons. Accordingly, the house of cards upon which Defendant's entire argument on this issue rests must fall.” Plaintiff's Response, p. 4. Jaronik argues that there is a genuine issue of fact regarding whether he resigned or was terminated, and the existence of that fact issue precludes Lakeville's argument altogether. As he puts it:

In order for the court to accept that position, the court would have to weigh the evidence and make a factual determination that Plaintiff resigned during his conversation with Ms. Tyler. The content of this conversation, of course, is hotly disputed and constitutes a material question of fact.

Id., p. 4. Obviously there is a credibility issue here regarding whether Jaronik resigned or was terminated, and either Ms. Tyler or Mr. Jaronik has a faulty recollection or is fibbing, but credibility determinations are a jury's domain. Therefore, argues Jaronik, Lakeville has no basis on which to seek summary judgment on his due process claim, seeing as it is premised on the assumption that he resigned. Jaronik states that because he did not resign, “the only conclusion is [that he] was terminated for disciplinary reasons.” Plaintiff's Response, p. 4.

         In its reply brief, Lakeville turns the argument in the other direction again. The Town contends that Jaronik's argument ignores the fact that a police officer “can be terminated for reasons other than disciplinary[.]” Defendant's Reply, p. 2 (italics added). Lakeville summarizes its argument as follows:

The facts clearly indicate that Plaintiff's resignation/termination was not related to disciplinary reasons. Because there is no issue of fact concerning whether the Plaintiff was terminated for disciplinary reasons, there is no issue of whether Plaintiff's due process rights were violated. They were not.

Id., p. 3. Lakeville cites another Indiana statute to support its argument-I.C. § 36-5-7-6-which provides “that a deputy marshal may be terminated at any time.” Id., p. 5 (italics in original). This is another way of stating that Jaronik's employment was at-will, and so he could be terminated at any time for any reason-so long as the reason had nothing to do with the disciplinary matters ...

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