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Vanessa Cruz-Smith v. Michael Sinclair

August 18, 2011


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Juan R. Sanchez, J.


Plaintiff Vanessa Cruz-Smith, a police officer for the Borough of Nazareth (the Borough), brings employment discrimination claims against the Borough, former Chief of Police Michael Sinclair, current Chief of Police Thomas Trachta, and Borough Police Detective Frederick Lahovski pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (Title VII), 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq., and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act (PHRA), 43 P.S. § 951 et seq. Defendants ask this Court to dismiss Cruz-Smith's Complaint in its entirety pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. For the reasons set forth below, the motion will be granted in part and denied in part.


Cruz-Smith began working for the Borough as a police officer in April 2006. She believes she was both the first female and the first Puerto Rican police officer employed by the Borough. At some point during Cruz-Smith's employment, Sinclair told Cruz-Smith females had "no place in his department." Compl. ¶ 13. On another occasion, Sinclair advised Cruz-Smith not to "'advertise' her national origin/ethnicity because 'wetbacks' were not common in the area serviced by the Department." Id.

On August 27, 2008, Cruz-Smith and Lahovski were involved in an on-duty altercation with a criminal suspect who was later charged with aggravated assault against a police officer. Cruz-Smith was injured during the incident and was thereafter placed on off-duty status as a result of her injuries. Although Defendants knew the extent of Cruz-Smith's injuries, while she was off duty, Defendants attempted to restrict her continued access to worker's compensation and Heart and Lung Act benefits by challenging her medical documentation and her asserted inability to perform her normal duties. Defendants also petitioned to terminate Cruz-Smith's benefits, and attempted to discipline her for failing to bring her complete medical records to an independent medical examination Defendants had ordered.*fn2 Cruz-Smith alleges these actions were part of a campaign by Sinclair to remove her from her position "through the manipulation of work rules and standards, and their disparate application to [her]." Compl. ¶ 15.

On April 16, 2009, while Cruz-Smith was still off duty, a preliminary hearing was held in the criminal case which arose out of the August 27, 2008, incident. Lahovski knowingly made insufficient attempts to notify Cruz-Smith of the hearing, allegedly at Sinclair's behest. Because Cruz-Smith did not receive notice of the hearing, she did not attend it. At the hearing, the aggravated assault charges were withdrawn.

Soon after the hearing, Cruz-Smith contacted the police association's attorney, who sent correspondence regarding the problem of Cruz-Smith not receiving adequate notice of scheduled hearings.*fn3 Defendants nevertheless initiated disciplinary proceedings against Cruz-Smith relating to the April 16, 2009, hearing, and the Borough terminated her employment effective June 1, 2009.

Cruz-Smith filed a grievance regarding her termination and was ultimately reinstated to her position by arbitration award of September 28, 2009. Following Cruz-Smith's reinstatement, Trachta, who had replaced Sinclair as Chief of Police, "initiated inquiries and further proceedings to obstruct and delay [Cruz-Smith's] continued receipt of worker's compensation and [H]eart and

[L]ung [A]ct benefits," which benefits have since been discontinued. Compl. ¶ 27.

Cruz-Smith alleges she was subjected to discriminatory treatment based on her gender and national origin and to a hostile work environment, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, Title VII, and the PHRA. She also alleges she was subjected to retaliation for speaking out on matters of public concern and petitioning the government for redress of her grievances, in violation of the First Amendment. Cruz-Smith brings her constitutional claims against all Defendants pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983*fn4 and asserts Title VII and PHRA claims against only the Borough.


To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'"

Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1949 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In evaluating such a motion, a district court first should separate the legal and factual elements of the plaintiff's claims. Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). The court "must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions." Id. at 210-11. The court must then "determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a 'plausible claim for relief.'" Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. at 1950).

Defendants first argue Cruz-Smith's claims for gender and national origin discrimination should be dismissed because Cruz-Smith has not alleged facts that plausibly suggest she was subjected to an adverse employment action because of her gender or national origin, as required to state a discriminatory ...

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