Nelson v. Town of St. Johnsbury

Plaintiff Ralph Nelson, the former town manager of St. Johnsbury, appealed a trial court decision granting partial summary judgment to defendants, the Town of St. Johnsbury and its individual selectboard members (collectively "the Town"), on his claims of wrongful termination; violation of procedural due process under the Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. 1983; violation of Chapter I, Article 4 of the Vermont Constitution; and promissory estoppel. In September 2010, the selectboard formally hired plaintiff as town manager after he served briefly on an interim basis. According to plaintiff, the Town's attorney advised him on three separate occasions that he could be removed only for serious misconduct, which the attorney assured was "an extremely high bar." As town manager, plaintiff undertook a major project to renovate and lease the Town's Pomerleau Building. He gained voter approval on a renovation budget and negotiated a lease with a potential tenant. The selectboard contended plaintiff made certain misrepresentations about the proposed lease, which plaintiff denied. Selectboard chair James Rust informed plaintiff that the board had concerns about his performance and gave him a letter stating that the board would be conducting an inquiry. Rust called plaintiff and notified him that the selectboard would be meeting but that plaintiff was not obligated to attend (plaintiff nonetheless attended). When the meeting convened that evening, the selectboard immediately recessed to executive session. After forty-five minutes, the board asked plaintiff to join them, at which time they discussed the lease. The selectboard asked plaintiff if he wanted to resign, and he declined. Consequently, the board returned to public session and passed a vote of "no confidence." According to plaintiff, he did not understand until that time that the selectboard was terminating his employment. Upon review of the parties' arguments on appeal, the Supreme Court reversed and remanded on the trial court's dismissal of the wrongful termination, Civil Rights Act, and state constitutional claims. The Court affirmed the court's dismissal of the promissory estoppel claim and its grant of summary judgment on the qualified immunity defense. View "Nelson v. Town of St. Johnsbury" on Justia Law