A federal judge has tossed a lawsuit filed by a school custodian who claimed he was transferred because of his union’s complaint about working on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.
U.S. District Judge Richard P. Conaboy of the Middle District of Pennsylvania granted Pittson Area School District’s motion for summary judgment. Conaboy also denied plaintiff Mike Baloga’s motion for summary judgment.
Baloga took issue with working on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2016 since the district had given custodial workers off for the preceding 26 years. The union, for which he was vice president, filed a grievance with the school district, according to Conaboy’s opinion.
After the grievance was filed, Baloga asserts, he was informed that he would be transferred from the district’s high school to the elementary school. Baloga sued the district, claiming the transfer was an act of retaliation against his right to free association in the union.
In denying Baloga’s motion for summary judgment, Conaboy said, “A jury confronted with the entire situation that has been outlined by the parties could reasonably conclude that the district’s decision to transfer plaintiff was not retaliatory due to his status as a union official.”
As for granting the district’s request to throw out the case, Conaboy said that matter turned on whether, as a government employee, Baloga’s speech was considered constitutionally protected. Conaboy examined whether the speech was a matter of public concern.
“The speech plaintiff seeks to characterize as related to a matter of public concern was directed only to the question of whether he and his fellow custodians would be getting a day off on Martin Luther King Day in 2016,” Conaboy said. “The court cannot construe this question as a matter of public concern inasmuch as it does not believe that the general citizenry of the Pittston Area School District was affected by or the slightest bit concerned over the work schedule of the district’s custodians on the date in question.”
He added, “Plaintiff’s speech was predominantly motivated by his personal preference to have a paid holiday and the district’s decision to require work that day.”
Conaboy said that even if Baloga’s speech were protected, the court would have to weigh that against the district’s need to perform efficient public services.
“Plaintiff’s reassignment to the primary center on Jan. 22, 2016, regardless of his employer’s motivation, must be seen as something inherently within the district’s prerogatives,” Conaboy said.
Mark Kozlowski of Marshall Dennehey Warner Coleman & Goggin in Scranton represents the defendants. He said in an email, “My clients and I agree with the court’s decision,” but declined to comment further, citing the potential for an appeal.
Cynthia L. Pollick of The Employment Law Firm represents Baloga. She did not respond to a request for comment.