IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
April 9, 2010
MICHAEL BOWSER AND ANTHONY FREY, PLAINTIFFS,
DAVID BOGDANOVIC, JASON UMBERGER, DAVID RICCI, AND SWATARA TOWNSHIP, DEFENDANTS.
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Hon. John E. Jones III
Before the Court in this matter is Defendants Swatara Township, David Bogdanovic ("Bogdanovic"), Jason Umberger ("Umberger"), and David Ricci's ("Ricci") (collectively, "Defendants") Motion to Strike Plaintiffs Michael Bowser ("Bowser") and Anthony Frey's ("Frey") (collectively, "Plaintiffs") Amended Complaint ("the Motion"). (Doc. 51). In the alternative, Defendants move to dismiss Plaintiffs' Amended Complaint. The Court will grant the Motion in the manner detailed below and will dismiss the Amended Complaint (Doc. 50) in its entirety.
I. STANDARDS OF REVIEW
A. Motion to Strike
Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(f) provides: Upon motion made by a party before a responsive pleading or, if no responsive pleading is permitted by these rules, upon motion made by a party within 20 days after the service of the pleading upon the party or upon the court's own initiative at any time, the court may order stricken from any pleading any insufficient defense or any redundant, immaterial, impertinent, or scandalous material.
Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f).
B. Motion to Dismiss
In considering a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), courts "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). In resolving a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court generally should consider only the allegations in the complaint, as well as "documents that are attached to or submitted with the complaint, . . . and any matters incorporated by reference or integral to the claim, items subject to judicial notice, matters of public record, orders, [and] items appearing in the record of the case." Buck v. Hampton Twp. Sch. Dist., 452 F.3d 256, 260 (3d Cir. 2006).
A Rule 12(b)(6) motion tests the sufficiency of the complaint against the pleading requirements of Rule 8(a). Rule 8(a)(2) requires that a complaint contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief, "in order to give the defendant fair notice of what the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 545 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ---U.S. ----, ----, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). To survive a motion to dismiss, a civil plaintiff must allege facts that 'raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . ." Victaulic Co. v. Tieman, 499 F.3d 227, 235 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Accordingly, to satisfy the plausibility standard, the complaint must indicate that defendant's liability is more than "a sheer possibility." Iqbal, 120 S.Ct. at 1949. "Where a complaint pleads facts that are 'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it 'stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of entitlement to relief.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 557).
Under the two-pronged approach articulated in Twombly and later formalized in Iqbal, a district court must first identify all factual allegations that constitute nothing more than "legal conclusions" or "naked assertions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are "not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded for purposes of resolving a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. Next, the district court must identify "the 'nub' of the . . . complaint--the well-pleaded, nonconclusory factual allegation[s]." Id. Taking these allegations as true, the district judge must then determine whether the complaint states a plausible claim for relief. See id.
However, "a complaint may not be dismissed merely because it appears unlikely that the plaintiff can prove those facts or will ultimately prevail on the merits." Phillips, 515 F.3d at 231(citing Twombly, 127 S.Ct. 1964-65, 1969 n.8). Rule 8 "does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage, but instead simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element." Id. at 234.
II. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
Plaintiffs initiated the instant action with the filing of a Complaint on May 6, 2008, asserting various federal constitutional claims against Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 1). Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 5) that we granted in part and denied in part. (Doc. 15). On October 23, 2008, we granted Plaintiff Bowser leave to amend the complaint so as to properly allege a First Amendment retaliation claim. (Doc. 15). Plaintiffs eventually filed an Amended Complaint on March 11, 2009. (Doc. 27). Defendants filed another Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint on March 25, 2009. (Doc. 28). A screening of the Amended Complaint revealed that Plaintiffs' counsel failed to comply with the Middle District of Pennsylvania Local Rule 15.1(2), which mandates that motions to amend a complaint must be accompanied by "a copy of the original pleading in which stricken material has been lined through and any new material has been inserted and underlined or set forth in bold-faced type." M.D. Pa. L .R. 15.1(2). Plaintiffs appropriately re-filed the Amended Complaint on August 5, 2009. (Doc. 43). Defendants subsequently filed an addendum to their Motion on August 10, 2009.
The Court ultimately granted in part and denied in part Defendants' Motion to Dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Doc. 45). Specifically, the Court ordered that paragraphs 11, 13, 29, 30, 32-35, 47 (in part), 49, 52, 53, 55, and 60 be stricken from the Amended Complaint. We further directed Plaintiffs to file a revised Amended Complaint "which shall incorporate into consecutively numbered paragraphs those proposed amendments that were not stricken by virtue of this Memorandum and Order." (Doc. 45 pp. 16-17). We granted Plaintiffs leave to file a motion to supplement the allegations contained in paragraphs 32-35, 55, and 60 or waive any right to assert them in the future, and Plaintiffs did not avail themselves of that opportunity. In granting Plaintiffs some leniency by allowing them to file an Amended Complaint, we strongly cautioned that "Plaintiffs shall not include any of the stricken allegations in the revised amended complaint" and noted that their "[f]ailure to abide by this dictate may result in the levying of sanctions for failure to comply with a Court Order." (Doc. 45 p. 17, n. 17).
Candidly, the Court was not surprised when Plaintiffs filed an Amended Complaint that did not comply with any of the dictates given by the Court.*fn1 In fact, the document Plaintiffs filed was the exact document they filed on August 5, 2009, which included all allegations that were stricken by the Court's Order on October 22, 2009. (Doc. 50). Therefore, Defendants filed the instant Motion on November 16, 2009, requesting that the Court strike the Amended Complaint because of Plaintiffs' disregard of a Court Order, or, alternatively, to dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Doc. 51). The Motion has been fully briefed (Docs. 52, 57), and is thus ripe for disposition.
The parties and the Court are familiar with the factual background of this case. Notably, Plaintiffs failed to assert any factual background in the Brief in Opposition to the Motion to Strike. Therefore, for the purposes of judicial economy and because Plaintiff does not seem to dispute the facts as stated, we will incorporate by reference the factual recitation contained in the Court's October 23, 2008 Memorandum and Order (Doc. 15). Irrespective of Plaintiffs' failure to provide any useful information, we note that, where appropriate, all of the facts and reasonable inferences drawn therefrom are viewed in the light most favorable to the Plaintiffs as the non-moving party in accordance with the standard of review.
A. Stricken and Dismissed Allegations and Claims
Because the Court already struck from the Amended Complaintthe various paragraphs reasserted in this Amended Complaint, specifically,paragraphs 11, 13, 29, 30, 32-35, 47 (in part), 49, 52, 53, 55, and 60, we will not repeat the same analysis here. We note that, in Plaintiffs' three-page Brief in Opposition to the Motion to Strike (Doc. 57), Plaintiffs maintain they "so move the Court" but never specify to what they are so moving. (Doc. 57 p. 2). Candidly, the Court has extreme difficulty making sense of Plaintiffs' Brief in Opposition. Nonetheless, to be fair and even exceedingly generous, the Court will attempt to derive from that brief the most reasonable interpretations of Plaintiffs' "arguments"*fn2 and will therefore interpret the Brief in Opposition as requesting leave to, yet again, amend the Complaint.
Plaintiffs assert that they did "their best to comply" with the Court's October 22, 2009 Order, but because of attendant circumstances and because, according to Plaintiff, the entire process has been "bewildering" and the Court's Order was "very complicated", Plaintiffs were unable to comply with the Order. (Doc. 57 pp. 1-3). Plaintiffs further suggest that "Defendants' suggestion to strike the amended complaint is punitive and accomplishes nothing." (Doc. 57 p. 2).
Even assuming that the Court's Order was "complex" or, even, "bewildering", we find no reason why Plaintiffs counsel was not able to understand the very clear instructions given inthe actual Order. To repeat, the Court ordered: "The Motion is GRANTED with respect to paragraphs 11, 13, 29, 30, 32-35, 47 (in part, as referenced above), 49, 52, 53, 55, and 60 of the amended complaint. These paragraphs shall be STRICKEN from the amended complaint." (Doc. 45 p. 16). If Plaintiffs thought, perhaps, that the Court was in error, then Plaintiffs could have timely filed a motion for reconsideration. They did not do so. We will not grant Plaintiffs leniency for blatantly disregarding, even under the threat of sanctions,*fn3 an Order of the Court.*fn4 Those paragraphs remain stricken from the Complaint and the Court will not consider the assertions in evaluating whether the complaint should be dismissed for failure to state a claim. Nonetheless, although the entire Amended Complaint likely should be stricken because of Plaintiffs blatant violation of a Court Order, we will not strike the Amended Complaint as we find that it is more properly dismissed on its merits.
Furthermore, Plaintiff reasserts a Fourteenth Amendment claim that has not been dismissed only once, but rather has been dismissed twice. The Court will not waste its time advising Plaintiffs as to why these claims will be dismissed, but will direct them to the previous orders dismissing those claims. (Docs. 15, 45).*fn5
B. Remaining Allegations
Defendants assert that, if not entirely stricken, the remaining allegations should be dismissedfor a failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (See Doc. 51).
To prevail on a First Amendment retaliation claim, a plaintiff must make three showings: (1) the plaintiff engaged in protected activity, such as engaging in public speech,*fn6 (2) the defendants responded with "retaliation," (an adverse employment action), see Anderson v. Davila, 125 F.3d 148, 161 (3d Cir. 1997) and (3) the protected activity was a substantial or motivating factor of the alleged retaliation. Rauser v. Horn, 241 F.3d 330, 333 (3d Cir. 2001).In addition to speaking on a matter of public concern, to recover the speaker must show he was speaking as a private citizen, and not pursuant to his official duties. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410 (2006). If a plaintiff can meet these threshold criteria, the burden then shifts to the defendant to demonstrate, by a preponderance of the evidence, that the action would have been taken in the absence of the protected activity. Id.
Defendants assert that, because Plaintiff Bowser alleges only a litany of "retaliatory actions" but no protected activity, the First Amendment retaliation claim must be dismissed. First, Defendants note that Plaintiff Bowser's request for light duty after surgery does not constitute protected activity because the request was a matter of personal concern and the request was not made in his capacity as a citizen, but rather was a private request. (Doc. 52 p. 13 (referencing Doc. 50 ¶ 22(a)-(i)). Further, Defendants allege that, even if Plaintiff Bowser's request constituted protected activity, the delay in granting his request for light duty does not constitute a retaliatory or adverse employment action. (Doc. 52 p. 14). Defendants also maintain that Plaintiff Bowser's allegation regarding the elimination as an Officer in Charge because he spoke to an officer who was suing the department privately also fails to establish retaliation because there is no public speech involved, and thus no protected activity. (Doc. 52 pp. 14-15 (referencing Doc. 50 ¶ 24)). Moreover, Defendants assert that Plaintiff Bowser's removal from a command post he set up at the prison during a bomb scare involved neither protected activity nor a retaliatory action because Plaintiff Bowser acted only in accord with his official duties and his removal was not an adverse employment action but, rather, reasonably inferred as proper operating procedure at the prison. (Doc. 52 p. 15 (referencing Doc. 50 ¶¶ 25-26)). Finally, Defendants maintain that Defendants' denial of Plaintiff Bowser's opportunity to attend Field Training Officer School is not actionable because Plaintiff Bowser likewise alleges no protected activity, namely speech, that "occurred at any time prior and proximate to the alleged retaliation." (Doc. 52 p. 15- 16 (Doc. 50 ¶ 27)).
Related to Plaintiff Frey's allegations, Defendants maintain that Plaintiff Frey's "failure to consecutively plead properly added allegations in his 'revised amended complaint' makes it very difficult to discern any cogent timeline to any protected activity or alleged ensuing retaliation." (Doc. 52 p. 16). Defendants assert that Plaintiff Frey asserts no factual allegations of retaliatory conduct, but rather only recites the legal elements of a retaliation claim. (Id.). Defendants note that Plaintiff Frey alleges retaliation claims with respect to the following incidents of allegedly protected activity or retaliatory action: (1) Plaintiff Frey criticized the "quota" system in place and Defendants retaliated in September 2006; (2) Plaintiff Frey was forced to search the records related to a stop of an FBI agent in July 2006 (Doc. 50 ¶ 48); (3) Defendant Bogdanovic questioned Plaintiff Frey's supervisors on whether he knew how long the lunch period was (Doc. 50 ¶ 54); (4) Plaintiff Frey requested light duty and later experienced shift changes (Doc. 50 ¶ 46); (5) Plaintiff Frey was denied an interview for a detective position on October 23, 2007*fn7 . (Doc. 52 pp. 16-18).*fn8
We note that, as a matter of course, the Court could dismiss Plaintiffs' claims because Plaintiffs failed to respond to the arguments for dismissal of those claims set forth in the Defendants' Brief in Support of the instant Motion.*fn9
Nonetheless, we will briefly address the Court's analysis of each Plaintiff's claims.
As noted above, in asserting a First Amendment retaliation claim, Plaintiffs are each required to make a showing that he engaged in a protected activity, that he suffered an adverse employment action, and the adverse employment action was causally connected to the retaliation. Here, Plaintiff Bowser is alleging that he engaged in a protected activity by asking Deputy Chief Umberger "whether the computer system 'would be up and running again'." (Doc. 50 ¶ 10). Bowser then asserts the litany of retaliatory actions detailed above. Even assuming, arguendo, that Plaintiff Bowser's question could be construed as a "protected activity",*fn10 we find that he has alleged no facts to support any causal connection between that activity and the adverse employment actions he has alleged.
Plaintiff Frey alleges that he engaged in the protected activity of criticizing the "quota" system used by Swatara Township. (See Doc. 50 ¶ 41). He too asserts a litany of retaliatory actions by Defendants, detailed above. However, even assuming that Plaintiff Frey can establish those two prongs, he still asserts no facts to demonstrate a causal connection between the "protected" activity and the adverse employment actions taken. As such, Plaintiff Frey cannot demonstrate any plausible First Amendment retaliation claim.
To repeat, a district court must identify all factual allegations that constitute nothing more than "legal conclusions" or "naked assertions." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 557. Such allegations are "not entitled to the assumption of truth" and must be disregarded for purposes of resolving a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950. Excising all of Plaintiffs' bald assertions and legal conclusions, we find that the Amended Complaint does not allege any, let alone sufficient, facts to support a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment. As such, will dismiss the Amended Complaint in its entirety.*fn11
The Court is well aware that when addressing a motion to dismiss in civil rights actions, a district court must grant a plaintiff leave to amend "irrespective of whether it is requested ... unless doing so would be inequitable or futile." Fletcher-Harlee Corp. v. Pote Concrete Contrs., Inc., 482 F.3d 247, 251 (3d Cir. 2007). Nonetheless, Plaintiffs have amended the complaint three times in this action. As the Third Circuit has recently noted, "allowing [Plaintiff] a fourth bite at the apple would be futile." Mann v. Brenner, et al., 2010 U.S. App. LEXIS 6540, *19-20 n. 9 (3d Cir. March 31, 2010) (non-precedential opinion).*fn12 The Court is convinced that there are few greater exercises in futility than granting Plaintiffs a "fifth bite at the apple." As such, and because of the reasons articulated above, we will dismiss the Amended Complaint in its entirety. An appropriate Order shall enter.