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Gardner v. Barry

November 23, 2010


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Conner


This is a civil rights action filed by plaintiffs Erin M. Gardner ("Erin"), and Jeffrey M. Gardner ("Jeffrey"), against Sally A. Barry ("Barry"), Richard Worley ("Worley"), John Leahy ("Leahy"), and Lebanon County, alleging violations of Erin's and Jeffrey's First, Fourth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Presently before the court is a motion (Doc. 6) to dismiss the complaint filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). For the reasons that follow, the court will grant the motion in part and deny the motion in part.

I. Background

A. Statement of Facts*fn1

This case arises out of events that occurred during 2007 and 2008. In August 2007, plaintiff Erin Gardner, then Erin Lewis, was employed as a Lebanon County probation officer. (Doc. 1 ¶ 6). Erin met plaintiff Jeffrey Gardner when she was assigned to supervise Jeffrey during the term of his probation. (Id. ¶ 7). Erin supervised Jeffrey from August 2007 until February 15, 2008. (Id.) In December of 2007, plaintiffs began an intimate relationship. (Id. ¶ 19). On February 15, 2008, Erin resigned from her position as a Lebanon County probation officer and took a position with the United States Army stationed at Fort Meade, Maryland. (Id. ¶ 8). Erin's new employment required top secret security clearance, which she was granted. (Id.)

Sometime between February 15, 2008, and March 7, 2008, Jeffrey requested from his new probation officer permission to visit Erin in Maryland. (Id. ¶ 9). After this request, Ms. Barry, head of Adult Probation for Lebanon County, telephoned Jeffrey to inquire whether he and Erin had a relationship. (Id.) On March 7, 2008, Erin traveled to Pennsylvania to visit Jeffrey. (Id. ¶ 10). That evening, at approximately 8:30 p.m., Ms. Barry and Mr. Worley, Barry's assistant, sought and received access to Jeffrey's apartment. (Id. ¶ 11). Barry and Worley informed Jeffrey that Erin had to leave or Jeffrey was going to jail. (Id. ¶ 12). They ordered that Jeffrey not see, talk to, or associate with Erin because they were conducting an internal investigation. (Id.) Upon hearing this, Erin voluntarily agreed to leave, but informed Barry that it was unlawful to impose special conditions of probation or parole on any probationer or parolee without a hearing and a court order. (Id. ¶ 13). Barry purportedly responded, "I can do whatever I want." (Id. ¶ 14).

That very evening, Lebanon County Chief of Detectives, John Leahy, telephoned Jeffrey and directed him to appear in his office for questioning on Monday, March 10, 2008. (Id. ¶ 15). Jeffrey complied with this directive. The primary focus of the questioning was whether Jeffrey and Erin had an intimate relationship. (Id. ¶ 16). Barry was present at the time of this interview. (Id. ¶ 17). Jeffrey informed Leahy and Barry that he and Erin had fallen in love and had an intimate relationship beginning December 2007. (Id. ¶ 19). Plaintiffs aver that no statute, regulation, custom, or practice within the Lebanon County Adult Probation Department prohibits or advises staff or clients against dating or sexual relations with any other person. (Id. ¶ 18).

On or about March 28, 2008, Leahy charged Erin with two misdemeanors: tampering with public records and obstructing the administration of law.*fn2 (Id. ¶ 26).

In April 2008, after Barry learned that Erin was going to contest the criminal charges, plaintiffs aver that Barry contacted Erin's supervisor at Fort Meade, and fabricated information about Erin's charges. (Id. ¶¶ 50-52). According to the complaint, Erin was discharged from her position and stripped of her security clearance as a result of this contact. (Id. ¶ 53). A jury found Erin guilty of tampering with public records, but not guilty on charge of obstructing the administration of law.*fn3 (Id. ¶ 47).

In early June 2008, Jeffrey and Erin conferred with an attorney regarding these incidents. (Id. ¶ 20). As a result of the meeting Jeffrey's attorney mailed a letter to Barry declaring her conduct "illegal." (Id. ¶ 21). Jeffrey and Erin were married on June 17, 2008. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 23). That same day, Worley called Jeffrey and ordered him to report to the Lebanon Adult Probation Department. (Id. ¶ 22). When he arrived, Worley handed him an order to attend a probation violation hearing on June 25, 2008. (Id. ¶ 24). Jeffrey informed Worley that he and Erin had married, to which Worley allegedly responded "they'll find something to violate [you] on." (Id. ¶ 25).

B. Procedural History

Plaintiffs Jeffrey and Erin filed suit pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1983, against Barry, Worley, Leahy, and Lebanon County on March 8, 2010, alleging violations of plaintiffs' First, Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment Rights.*fn4 In Count I, plaintiffs allege that defendants violated plaintiffs' First Amendment right to associate with each other and engage in a personal relationship. (Doc. 1 ¶¶ 29-35). Notably, plaintiffs allege that Lebanon County has a policy of imposing special probation conditions against probationers without court orders and hearings. (Id. ¶ 33). In Count II, plaintiffs allege that defendants violated their Fourteenth Amendment substantive due process right to enter intimate relations. (Id. ¶¶ 36-44). In Count III, Erin alleges that defendants Barry and Leahy violated her Fourth Amendment rights by proceeding with a malicious prosecution that lacked probable cause. (Id. ¶¶ 45-48). Finally, in Count IV, Erin alleges that defendant Barry violated Erin's First Amendment right to petition for a redress of grievances by contacting Erin's supervisor at Fort Meade. (Id. ¶¶ 49-54). Plaintiffs seek damages for pain and suffering, emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment, punitive damages, attorney's fees, and costs.

On April 1, 2010, defendants filed the instant motion (Doc. 6) to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). The motion has been fully briefed and is now ripe for disposition.

II. Standard of Review

Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides for the dismissal of complaints that fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6). When ruling on a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the court must "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." Gelman v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 583 F.3d 187, 190 (3d Cir. 2009) (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)); see also Kanter v. Barella, 489 F.3d 170, 177 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Evancho v. Fisher, 423 F.3d 347, 350 (3d Cir. 2005)). Although the court is generally limited in its review to the facts contained in the complaint, it "may also consider matters of public record, orders, exhibits attached to the complaint and items appearing in the record of the case." Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384 n.2 (3d Cir. 1994); see also In re Burlington Coat Factory Sec. Litig., 114 F.3d 1410, 1426 (3d Cir. 1997).

Federal notice and pleading rules require the complaint to provide "the defendant notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests."

Phillips, 515 F.3d at 232 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). To test the sufficiency of the complaint in the face of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court must conduct a two-step inquiry. In the first step, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated; well-pleaded facts must be accepted as true, while mere legal conclusions may be disregarded. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210-11 (3d Cir. 2009). Once the well-pleaded factual allegations have been isolated, the court must determine whether they are sufficient to show a "plausible claim for relief." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, --- U.S. ---, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (requiring plaintiffs to allege facts sufficient to "raise a right to relief above the speculative level"). A claim "has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Iqbal, --- U.S. at ---, 129 S.Ct. at 1949. When the complaint fails to establish defendant liability, however, courts should generally grant plaintiffs leave to amend their claims before dismissing a complaint that is merely deficient. See Grayson v. Mayview State Hosp., 293 F.3d 103, 108 (3d Cir. 2002); Shane v. Fauver, 213 F.3d 113, 116-17 (3d Cir. 2000).

III. Discussion

A. First and Fourteenth Amendment Claims Pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983: Right to Associate and Intimate Relations

Section 1983 offers private citizens a means to redress violations of federal law committed by state officials. See 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The statute provides, in pertinent part, as follows:

Every person who, under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage, of any State or Territory of the District of Columbia, subjects, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States or other person within the jurisdiction thereof to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws, shall be liable to the party injured in an action at law, suit in equity, or other proper proceeding for redress. . . .

Id. As this court has noted on many prior occasions, § 1983 is not a source of substantive rights but instead provides a method for vindicating rights secured elsewhere in federal law. Gonzaga Univ. v. Doe, 536 U.S. 273, 284-85 (2002); Kneipp v. Tedder, 95 F.3d 1199, 1204 (3d Cir. 1996). A ยง 1983 plaintiff must demonstrate that the defendant, while acting under the color of state law, deprived the plaintiff ...

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