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Wendy Chan v. County of Lancaster; ) Dennis Stuckey; ) Scott Martin; ) Craig

September 26, 2011

WENDY CHAN, PLAINTIFF
v.
COUNTY OF LANCASTER; ) DENNIS STUCKEY; ) SCOTT MARTIN; ) CRAIG LEHMAN; ) CHARLES E. DOUTS, JR.; AND ) ANDREA MCCUE, DEFENDANTS



The opinion of the court was delivered by: James Knoll Gardner, United States District Judge

OPINION

This matter is before the court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint, which motion was filed by all defendants together with a memorandum of law in support on February 24, 2011. Plaintiff's Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion to Dismiss in Part the Amended Complaint was filed together with a memorandum of law in support on March 21, 2011. On April 8, 2011, defendants filed their Reply Brief in Support of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Amended Complaint, with the court's permission. For the reasons articulated in this Opinion, I grant in part and deny in part defendants' motion.

SUMMARY OF DECISION

For the following reasons, I grant defendants' motion to dismiss the claims in Count I against all defendants for violation of procedural due process arising from deprivation of a constitutionally-protected property interest, and dismiss this claim with prejudice.

Next, I grant defendants' motion to dismiss the claims in Count I against all defendants for violation of procedural due process arising from deprivation of a liberty interest in reputation, for First Amendment retaliation, and for conspiracy pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, without prejudice for plaintiff to file a second amended complaint by October 17, 2011 to re-plead these claims in accordance with this Opinion.

In plaintiff's response to the motion to dismiss, she withdraws her Section 1983 claims against all defendants for substantive due process and politically-motivated wrongful termination. Accordingly, plaintiff's second amended complaint will not include these claims.

In addition, I grant defendants' motion to dismiss the claim in Count II against defendant County of Lancaster for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII") based upon a hostile work environment, without prejudice for plaintiff to file a second amended complaint by October 17, 2011 to re-plead this claim in accordance with this Opinion.

Finally, I grant defendants' motion to dismiss the claims in Count IV against all defendants for violation of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA") based upon a hostile work environment, without prejudice for plaintiff to file a second amended complaint by October 17, 2011 to re-plead this claim in accordance with this Opinion.

In all other respects defendants' motion to dismiss is denied. As a result, the following claims remain in plaintiff's Amended Complaint:

In Count I, plaintiff's claims against all defendants for violation of equal protection of laws.

In Count II, plaintiff's claim against defendant County of Lancaster for violation of Title VII based upon disparate treatment.

In Count IV, plaintiff's claim against all defendants for violation of the PHRA based upon disparate treatment.

In Count VI, plaintiff's claim against the individual defendants for false light invasion of privacy.

Additionally, the following claims remain in plaintiff's Amended Complaint because defendants did not move to dismiss them:

In Count II, plaintiff's claims against defendant County of Lancaster for violations of Title VII based upon theories other than disparate treatment or a hostile work environment. *fn1

In Count IV, plaintiff's claims against all defendants for violations of the PHRA based upon theories other than disparate treatment or a hostile work environment. *fn2

In Count III, plaintiff's claim against defendant County of Lancaster for violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

In Count V, plaintiff's claims against the individual defendants for defamation.

JURISDICTION

Jurisdiction in this case is based upon federal question jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331. This court has supplemental jurisdiction over plaintiff's pendent state-law claims. See 28 U.S.C. § 1367.

VENUE

Venue is proper pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1391(b) because the events giving rise to plaintiff's claims allegedly occurred in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, which is located within this judicial district.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Plaintiff initiated this action on July 13, 2010 by filing a six-count Complaint against defendants. Defendants filed a motion to dismiss on November 16, 2010. Pursuant to a stipulation approved by my Order dated January 12, 2011, plaintiff filed a six-count Amended Complaint on February 7, 2011. Plaintiff's claims arise from actions allegedly taken by defendants in the context of her employment as Director of Human Resources for the County of Lancaster, as well as the circumstances of her suspension without pay and eventual termination from that position.

Count I of the Amended Complaint alleges various deprivations of plaintiff's federal constitutional rights by all defendants in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Specifically, Count I alleges claims for deprivation of procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment, claims for politically-motivated wrongful termination and retaliation in violation of the First Amendment, and a claim of conspiracy to violate plaintiff's federal constitutional rights.

Count II alleges a claim against defendant County of Lancaster for violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000(e)-2000(e)-17. Count III alleges a claim against defendant County of Lancaster for violation of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, as amended, 42 U.S.C. §§ 12101-12213.

Count IV alleges a claim against all defendants for violations of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act, Act of October 27, 1955, P.L. 744, No. 222, §§ 1-13, as amended, 43 P.S. §§ 951-963. Count V alleges a Pennsylvania state-law claim against defendants Stuckey, Martin, Lehman, Douts, and McCue ("the individual defendants") for defamation. Finally, Count VI alleges a Pennsylvania state-law claim against the individual defendants for false light invasion of privacy.

On February 24, 2011 defendants filed the within motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff filed her response in opposition on March 21, 2011. On April 8, 2011 defendants filed a reply brief with permission. Hence this Opinion.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

A claim may be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) for "failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). A Rule 12(b)(6) motion requires the court to examine the sufficiency of the complaint. Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45, 78 S.Ct. 99, 102, 2 L.Ed.2d 80, 84 (1957) (abrogated in other respects by Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)).

Generally, in ruling on a motion to dismiss, the court relies on the complaint, attached exhibits, and matters of public record, including other judicial proceedings. Sands v. McCormick, 502 F.3d 263, 268 (3d Cir. 2008).

Except as provided in Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 9, a complaint is sufficient if it complies with Rule 8(a)(2), which requires "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief."

Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 8(a)(2) "[does] not require heightened fact pleading of specifics, but only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. at 1974, 167 L.Ed.2d at 949. *fn3

In determining whether a plaintiff's complaint is sufficient, 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, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210 (quoting Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 233 (3d Cir. 2008)).

Although "conclusory or 'bare-bones' allegations will [not] survive a motion to dismiss," Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210, "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. Nonetheless, to survive a 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must provide "enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element[s]." Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965, 167 L.Ed.2d at 940) (internal quotation omitted).

The court is required to conduct a two-part analysis when considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. First, the factual matters averred in the complaint, and any attached exhibits, should be separated from legal conclusions asserted therein. Fowler, 578 F.3d at 210. Any facts pled must be taken as true, and any legal conclusions asserted may be disregarded. Id. at 210-211.

Second, the court must determine whether those factual matters averred are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. at 211 (quoting Iqbal, __ U.S. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1950, 178 L.Ed.2d at 884).

Ultimately, this two-part analysis is "context-specific" and requires the court to draw on "its judicial experience and common sense" to determine if the facts pled in the complaint have "nudged [plaintiff's] claims" over the line from "[merely] conceivable [or possible] to plausible." Iqbal, __ U.S. at __, 129 S.Ct. at 1950-1951, 178 L.Ed.2d at 884-885 (internal quotations omitted).

A well-pleaded complaint may not be dismissed simply because "it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable, and that a recovery is very remote and unlikely." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965, 167 L.Ed.2d at 940-941.

FACTS

Based upon the well-pled averments in plaintiff's Amended Complaint, which I must accept as true under the above standard of review, the pertinent facts are as follows.

Plaintiff, Wendy Chan, is an Asian female born in Taiwan. A naturalized citizen of the United States of America, she is a citizen of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. On January 5, 2009, she began working as the Director of Human Resources for defendant County of Lancaster. She was the sole Asian administrator working for Lancaster County and the only Asian administrator in its history. A hard-working, dedicated employee with an exemplary performance record, she was qualified and experienced for the job. *fn4

Plaintiff's direct supervisor was defendant Charles Douts, Jr., the County Administrator for Lancaster County. Douts was directly supervised by the County Commissioners: defendant Dennis Stuckey (then Chairman of the Commissioners), defendant Scott Martin (then Vice-Chairman), and defendant Craig Lehman.

The last defendant, Andrea McCue, oversaw the support staff for the Lancaster County Commissioners' Office and the County Administrator's Office, and was also directly supervised by the Commissioners. She was also formerly the acting Human Resources Director for Lancaster County, replacing the plaintiff. *fn5

As plaintiff began work, the defendants directed her to address deficiencies in the Human Resources Department, which were exposed around September 2008 as a result of an outside audit of the Department. Specifically, they directed plaintiff to reduce bureaucracy and waste, address confidentiality in the Department, increase direct response and communication with County employees, address unequal employment conditions, and address discriminatory treatment of employees on the basis of sex, age, disability and race/color. At the time, the County was also a defendant in pending federal discrimination lawsuits. Plaintiff was charged with responding to and addressing these claims. *fn6

She reported to the defendants discrimination, hostility and retaliation that she discovered and observed. Her efforts as Director included: hiring staff to educate County employees and department heads about discrimination and harassment in the workplace; recommending corrective action against employees who harassed or retaliated against other employees for reporting discrimination; recommending a handle bar in the handicap stall in the public restroom after a disabled employee fell; recommending removing and reassigning the sole female Park Ranger from a perpetuating hostile work environment; and instituting policies, which included procedures relative to wage and hour law, the Family Medical Leave Act, discipline and due process. *fn7

Apart from her job duties as Director of Human Resources, plaintiff spoke out as a citizen for the public-at-large for handicapped-accessible public restrooms in the County Courthouse. Plaintiff requested that a handle bar and privacy curtain be installed in the handicapped stall of the public restrooms, which was otherwise missing a privacy door. *fn8

Plaintiff's efforts were met with resistance and hostility. Defendant Douts instructed the plaintiff to "back off" from her efforts to address discrimination. He commented to her that she "lost credibility" for associating with employee "trouble makers" who reported discrimination to the Department. Plaintiff was also subjected to derogatory name-calling that mocked her ancestry, race and color. She was commonly referred to as "Chan Dynasty" and "Princess." *fn9

Around July 16, 2009, seven months into the job, the defendants falsely accused plaintiff of violating the Pennsylvania Ethics Act and suspended her without pay. The alleged ethics violations included a false accusation involving a recently contracted provider (Benecon) which had a relationship with the defendant Commissioner. *fn10

Defendants published the false accusations and the plaintiff's personal, private and confidential personnel matters throughout the County offices without plaintiff's knowledge or consent. They made statements that plaintiff was unethical, unprofessional and poorly performed her job.

Recipients of the false accusations included the support staff for the County Administrator's Office and Commissioners' Office, department heads and others in the County offices, contracted vendors and the Lancaster County community. Plaintiff denied the allegations. *fn11 The published false accusations tarnished plaintiff's good name and reputation. *fn12

Although plaintiff received disciplinary action, the Director of Parks was not suspended for allowing the Rangers to illegally carry guns. The Director of Recreation and her employees were not disciplined for threatening to reveal confidential information to the press.

The Director of the Youth Intervention Center wrongfully denied numerous employees benefits for years and was not disciplined. The Director of Facilities was not disciplined for defying orders to put up a curtain to comply with federal ADA laws. The Former Acting Director of Human Resources was known throughout the County to share confidential personnel information with anyone who would listen but she was not disciplined. All of these administrators were Caucasian. *fn13

On July 24, 2009, defendants terminated plaintiff. The Lancaster County personnel manual, Policy #005, provides that "no full time employee shall be terminated except for just cause." Plaintiff was replaced by a white male. Plaintiff timely filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. *fn14

The County scheduled a grievance hearing for Friday, August 21, 2009. Through a letter dated August 17, 2009 from her attorney, Nina B. Shapiro, Esquire, plaintiff informed the County that she objected to and would not be attending the hearing because of flaws in the grievance process.

Specifically, she was denied notice of charges against her. She was denied discovery. The County would not disclose its witnesses and plaintiff did not have the power to subpoena her own witnesses. She also did not have a copy of the investigation.

The Hearing Committee was comprised of three elected County officials, who were attendees at executive meetings to discuss privileged personnel issues. The Committee members lacked objectivity and had an interest in the outcome and knowledge of the grievance. *fn15

Further, according to Lancaster County Policy #006, the Committee may not limit or interfere with the supervisory authority granted to department heads and may not limit or interfere with the powers of the County Commissioner and its elective officials. Therefore, the Committee lacks the authority to actually act upon the grieved decisions. The policy further states that "reversed decisions are approved by the County Solicitor", who was biased with an interest in the outcome. *fn16

DISCUSSION

Defendants move to dismiss plaintiff's § 1983 claims in Count I for deprivation of procedural due process, substantive due process, and equal protection in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment; her claims for politically-motivated wrongful termination and retaliation in violation of the First Amendment; and her claim of conspiracy to violate plaintiff's federal constitutional rights.

Defendants additionally move to dismiss plaintiff's claims in Counts II and IV for violations of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act ("PHRA") to the extent these claims are based on theories of disparate treatment and hostile work environment. Finally, defendants move to dismiss plaintiff's claim in Count VI for false light invasion of privacy.

In plaintiff's response to the motion to dismiss, she withdraws her § 1983 claims in Count I for substantive due process and politically-motivated wrongful termination. *fn17

Accordingly, I do not address those claims on the merits and consider them withdrawn.

Section 1983 Claims

Plaintiffs' constitutional claims in Count I are actionable against defendants through 42 U.S.C. ยง 1983. Section 1983 is an enabling statute that does not create any substantive rights, but provides a remedy for the violation of federal constitutional or ...


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