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Richard M. Hanna and Hanna, Inc v. Eli N. Avila

May 30, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: William W. Caldwell United States District Judge


I. Introduction

Plaintiffs, Richard M. Hanna, and Hanna, Inc., filed this civil-rights action against defendant, Eli N. Avila, M.D., the Secretary of Health of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Plaintiffs allege that Defendant had developed personal animosity against Richard M. Hanna and decided to interfere with Plaintiffs' bid to operate the cafeteria in the Capitol Building, making the bid unsuccessful. Plaintiffs make three federal claims:

(1) a procedural due process claim; (2) a substantive due process claim; and (3) an equal protection claim. Plaintiffs make two state-law claims: (1) intentional interference with prospective business relations; and (2) defamation.

We are considering Defendant's motion for judgment on the pleadings under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(c). Since the motion argues that the complaint fails to state a claim, we review it under the standard used for motions to dismiss under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). See Turbe v. Gov't of Virgin Islands, 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991); Bangura v. City of Philadelphia, 338 F. App'x 261, 264 (3d Cir. 2009) (nonprecedential) (citing Turbe).

In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), "[w]e '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.'" Byers v. Intuit, Inc., 600 F.3d 286, 291 (3d Cir. 2010) (quoted case omitted).

A complaint has to plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). Detailed factual allegations are not required, id. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1964; Pryor v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 288 F.3d 548, 564 (3d Cir. 2002), only a "short and plain statement" showing the right to relief. Pryor, supra, 288 F.3d at 564 (citing Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 122 S.Ct. 992, 152 L.Ed.2d 1 (2002) and quoting Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)). "The plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement,' but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. at 1965). "[M]ore than labels and conclusions" are required. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. at 1964--65.

With this standard in mind, we set forth the background of this litigation, as Plaintiffs allege it.

III. Background

Plaintiffs allege as follows. In January or early February 2011, Defendant entered Plaintiffs' restaurant and ordered an egg sandwich, "indicating he was in a hurry." (Compl. ¶¶ 6-7). "Plaintiff happened to be frying eggs for himself and placed those eggs into a sandwich" served to Defendant. (Id. ¶ 8). Defendant then falsely accused Plaintiff of serving stale eggs, (id. ¶ 9), leading to "a heated discussion" in which Defendant accused Plaintiff "of serving bad food," and then said to Plaintiff "in a threatening tone 'You don't know who I am' before leaving the restaurant." (Id. ¶ 10).

Thereafter, Defendant "undertook a personal vendetta against Plaintiff" by "making a false complaint of "health violations" to the City of Harrisburg. (Id. ¶ 11). The City's health inspectors found only "one minor violation that had nothing to do with food services." (Id. ¶ 12).

In February 2011, Plaintiffs submitted a proposal to the Pennsylvania Department of General Services (DGS) for a contract to provide food service in the Capitol cafeteria. (Id. ¶ 14). "Upon learning of Plaintiff's proposal, Defendant intentionally, willfully, and maliciously sent the following e-mail message to the decision maker in the Department of General Services: 'It is my professional opinion that they (Plaintiffs) should not have any nexus to food services with the Capitol. I will elaborate if you want to talk to me about the matter.'" (Id. ¶ 18). Plaintiffs allege "[t]he plain meaning of the words uttered by Defendant were intended to defame and harm Plaintiffs." (Id. ¶ 19). Further, "the words were understood in a defamatory manner, disparaging Plaintiffs' ability to operate the food service business in the Capitol." (Id. ¶ 20). "Defendant inserted himself with the weight of his office into a procedure in which he would not normally have participated, but for his personal vendetta against Plaintiffs." (Id. ¶ 49).

"Defendant used the authority of his office to execute his personal vendetta and influence Commonwealth employees to deny the food service contract to Plaintiffs," (id. ¶ 21), which was awarded to another applicant. (Id. ¶ 22). The e-mail "was instrumental in Plaintiff's loss of the business opportunity." (Id. ¶ 23).

Count I of the complaint presents a procedural due process claim. Plaintiffs identify the following property interest that was allegedly infringed: "the ability to enjoy, use and pursue [Richard M. Hanna's] business as a provider of food and food service in the Capitol Building." (Id. ¶ 29). Plaintiffs identify the following liberty interests that were allegedly infringed: "reputation and ability to pursue business opportunities." (Id. ¶ 32). Plaintiffs further allege they were "deprived of a prospective business ...

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