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Suzanne M. Jones, Executrix of the Estate of Christopher C. Jones, Deceased v. Township of Middletown

July 26, 2011

SUZANNE M. JONES, EXECUTRIX OF THE ESTATE OF CHRISTOPHER C. JONES, DECEASED,
PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF MIDDLETOWN, DEFENDANT.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Slomsky, J.

OPINION

Before the Court is Defendant Township of Middletown's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Suzanne Jones's Complaint as executrix of Christopher Jones's estate, pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.*fn1 For reasons that follow, Defendant's Motion will be granted.

I.PROCEDURAL & FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Christopher C. Jones was a police officer and patrolman employed by the Township of Middletown in Bucks County, Pennsylvania (the "Township"). (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 4--5). On January 29, 2009, while conducting a traffic stop, Officer Jones was struck and killed by a vehicle. (Id. ¶¶ 7--8.) His wife, Plaintiff Suzanne M. Jones, who resides in Penndal, Pennsylvania, brings these claims on behalf of Officer Jones's estate. (Id. ¶ 3.)

The terms of Officer Jones's employment were covered by a Consolidated Collective Bargaining Agreement ("CBA") between the Township and the Police Benevolent Association, which represented Township police officers. (Id. ¶ 6.) Prior to Officer Jones's death, and specifically for the years 2007 and 2008, the Township contracted for and maintained an insurance policy that included $1 million in underinsured motorist ("UIM") coverage. (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff alleges that for calendar year 2009 the Township unilaterally decreased the UIM coverage level to $35,000. (Id. ¶ 9.) Plaintiff alleges that neither Officer Jones nor other "similarly situated" Township police officers received notice of a reduction in coverage, or any other process, before or after the reduced coverage amount went into effect. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 11--12.) Shortly after Officer Jones's death, Plaintiff was advised of the change and informed that the insurance benefits available under the Township's 2007 and 2008 policies were no longer available. (Id. ¶ 10.) Because Officer Jones had not received notice prior to the reduction in the coverage and prior to his death, he was denied the opportunity to purchase supplemental insurance to protect him and his family from a catastrophic accident. (Id. ¶ 16.)

On January 26, 2011, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this Court seeking damages based on the Township's reduction in UIM benefits.*fn2 Plaintiff's first claim, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleges that the Township's failure to provide notice prior to or after the reduction in UIM coverage deprived Officer Jones of property without due process of law, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. Her second claim, for breach of contract, alleges that, under the CBA, Officer Jones was entitled to notice of any change in benefits. (Doc. No. 1 ¶ 22.) Article XII of the CBA addresses insurance benefits, and includes explicit provisions for liability coverage for officers' conduct in the course of their employment; medical coverage, including post-retirement medical coverage and coverage for surviving spouses and children of officers killed while performing their duties; and life insurance. (Doc. No. 4, Ex. A at 31--34.) The CBA does not address UIM coverage. Article XV, Section C requires that "all existing benefits agreed to by the parties . . . or maintained by practice, shall remain in effect unless changed by Agreement of this Association and this Employer." (Id. at 45.) Finally, Plaintiff's third claim, derivative of her other claims, seeks "exemplary or punitive damages" on grounds that Defendant's failure to provide notice was willful, malicious, and in wanton disregard of Plaintiff's rights. (Doc. No. 1 ¶¶ 25--26.)

The Township moves to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint for failure to state a claim, asserting that Plaintiff: (1) fails to state a claim under § 1983 because insurance benefits provided by a government employer are not a property interest protected by the due process clause; and (2) has not pled sufficient facts to state a claim for breach of contract or punitive damages. (Doc. No. 3-1 at 2--5.)

II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

The motion to dismiss standard under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) has been the subject of recent examination, culminating with the Supreme Court's Opinion in Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937 (2009). After Iqbal it is clear that "threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements do not suffice" to defeat a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Id. at 1949; see also Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007). Applying the principles of Iqbal and Twombly, the Third Circuit in Santiago v. Warminster Twp., No. 10-1294, 2010 WL 5071779 (3d Cir. Dec. 14, 2010), set forth a three-part analysis that a district court in this Circuit must conduct in evaluating whether allegations in a complaint survive a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. 2010 WL 5071779, at *4; see also Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009) (applying the principles of Iqbal and articulating the 12(b)(6) analysis as a two-part test).

First, the court must "tak[e] note of the elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim." Second, the court should identify allegations that, "because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth." Finally, "where there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief."

Santiago, 2010 WL 5071779, at *4 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1947-50). "This means that our inquiry is normally broken into three parts: (1) identifying the elements of the claim, (2) reviewing the complaint to strike conclusory allegations, and then (3) looking at the well-pleaded components of the complaint and evaluating whether all of the elements identified in part one of the inquiry are sufficiently alleged." Malleus v. George, No. 10-3539, 2011 WL 2044166, at *2 (3d Cir. May 26, 2011).

A complaint must do more than allege a plaintiff's entitlement to relief, it must "show" such an entitlement with its facts. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210-11 (citing Phillips v. County of Allegheny 515 F.3d 224, 234-35 (3d Cir. 2008)). "Where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged--but it has not 'shown'-- 'that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950. The "plausibility" determination is a "context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.

III. DISCUSSION

In order to establish a claim pursuant to § 1983, "a plaintiff must demonstrate the defendant, acting under color of state law, deprived [plaintiff] of a right secured by the Constitution or the laws of the United States." Chainey v. Street, 523 F.3d 200, 219 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Kaucher v. Cnty. of Bucks, 455 F.3d 418, 423 (3d Cir. 2006)). Here, Plaintiff alleges a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, which prohibits state action that "deprive[s] any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law."*fn3 U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. The Due Process Clause protects an individual from state deprivation of constitutionally created rights for reasons so arbitrary, or by conduct so egregious, that it "shocks the conscience," regardless of the adequacy of the procedures used (substantive due process). See Kaucher, 455 F.3d at 425 (citing Cnty. of Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833, 845 (1998)). Due process also protects against deprivation of federal- or state-created protected interests without constitutionally adequate process, such as notice and the opportunity to be heard (procedural due process). See Daniels v. Williams 474 U.S. 327, 339 (1986) (Stevens, J., concurring). With respect to substantive or procedural due process, before determining the egregiousness of the deprivation or the sufficiency of procedures, a court must determine whether the interest at issue is protected by either substantive or procedural due process. See Kaucher, 455 F.3d at 423 & n.2 ("[T]he first step in evaluating a section 1983 claim is to identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to have been violated and to determine whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a constitutional right at all.") (citations and quotation omitted). Because ...


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