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Melvin S. Lockett, Janis Niemiec and Martin A. Kovacs v. Pennsylvania Department of Corrections

July 13, 2012

MELVIN S. LOCKETT, JANIS NIEMIEC AND MARTIN A. KOVACS, PLAINTIFFS,
v.
PENNSYLVANIA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS,
JOHN WETZEL, RANDY BRITTON AND MARDI VINCENT
DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Conti, District Judge.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

I.Introduction

On March 30, 2012, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), defendants Pennsylvania Department of Corrections ("DOC"), Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel ("Wetzel"), Deputy Secretary of Corrections Randy Britton ("Britton"), and Deputy Secretary of Corrections Mardi Vincent ("Vincent" and together with the DOC, Wetzel, and Britton, collectively "Defendants") filed a motion to dismiss (ECF No. 19) the amended complaint filed by Melvin S. Lockett ("Lockett"), Janis Niemiec ("Niemiec"), and Martin A. Kovacs ("Kovacs" and together with Lockett and Niemiec, collectively "Plaintiffs"). Plaintiffs filed the amended complaint on March 9, 2012 (ECF No. 17). The amended complaint contains two claims: 1) a federal claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment rights; and 2) a Pennsylvania state law claim for violation of The Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law, 43 PA. STAT. § 1421 et seq ("Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law"). For the reasons set forth below, the court will grant Defendants' motion to dismiss with respect to the § 1983 claim and dismiss the remaining claim without prejudice.

II.Factual and procedural background

On May 2, 2011, Plaintiffs were terminated from their respective positions with the DOC at the State Correctional Institution in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania ("SCI-Pittsburgh"). (ECF No. 17 ¶¶ 38, 41). Wetzel publically announced Plaintiffs' dismissal, claiming that the new managerial team would bring SCI-Pittsburgh in a "new direction." (Id. ¶ 49). Plaintiffs were informed that an investigation dating back to August 2008 led to their dismissal. (Id. ¶ 42).

On October 14, 2011, Plaintiffs filed a complaint in this court against Defendants. On February 24, 2012, this court granted Defendant's motion to dismiss the complaint with leave to amend. On March 9, 2012, Plaintiffs filed an amended complaint. The amended complaint alleges that Defendants violated Plaintiffs' Fourteenth Amendment right to procedural due process and their right to be free of retaliatory action under the Pennsylvania Whistleblower Law. As relief, Plaintiffs request compensatory and punitive damages for loss of income, earning capacity, and employment benefits. Plaintiffs also ask this court to grant an injunction to return Plaintiffs to their former positions at SCI-Pittsburgh.

In September 2010, Niemiec contacted SCI-Pittsburgh security personnel about concerns with the large number of sex offender requests for protective custody. (Id. ¶ 12). Eventually, the Office of Special Investigation and Intelligence ("OSII") conducted an investigation into inmate sexual abuse by corrections officers. (Id.). Plaintiffs claim to be entirely cooperative with OSII during this investigation and to have investigated and alleviated the problem themselves to the best of their abilities. (Id. ¶¶ 15-31). Despite the unusual number of requests for protective custody, no inmate filed an official grievance concerning sexual abuse from a corrections officer during this time. (Id. ¶ 24). In April 2011, Deputy Secretary Shirley Moore-Smeal of the Corrections Central Office directed Lockett to suspend seven officers at SCI-Pittsburgh. (Id. ¶ 29). The dismissal of these officers and the allegations of inmate abuse were highly publicized. (Id. ¶ 49). Allegedly, these suspensions greatly angered the Pennsylvania State Correctional Officers Association ("PSCOA"). (Id. ¶ 33).

Plaintiffs allege that the public nature of their dismissals created a false impression in the public that they either allowed the alleged sexual abuse of inmates to continue or refused to take actions to stop it. (Id. ¶ 53). Shortly after the announcement of their terminations, "ranking Democrats on the state House and Senate Judiciary Committees" were quoted in a Pittsburgh Tribune Review article as saying "that suggests a significant level of wrongdoing." (Id. ¶ 54). Plaintiffs allege that the investigation into inmate abuse was only a smokescreen for the true reason to fire Plaintiffs. (Id. ¶ 33). The dismissals were an attempt to appease the PSCOA due to the PSCOA's support of Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett. (Id.). The PSCOA allegedly disliked Plaintiffs for their roles in opposing grievance demands filed by the PSCOA. Plaintiffs point out that they were not dismissed for performance reasons because the incoming transitional team that replaced them all remarked how well-run SCI-Pittsburgh was. (Id. ¶ 59). Plaintiffs note that "in the end, they were never given an opportunity to explain their actions." (Id. ¶ 53).

On March 30, 2012, Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the amended complaint on the basis that the factual allegations in the amended complaint are insufficient to state a plausible claim for relief. Defendants argue in seeking to dismiss the federal claim that any public statements made during the termination did not stigmatize Plaintiffs. Specifically, Defendants assert there were no allegations made in the amended complaint from which the court could plausibly infer that at the time of termination public statements were made by Defendants concerning Plaintiffs' involvement in a sexual abuse scandal at SCI-Pittsburgh and that the federal claim must be dismissed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

III.Standard of Review

A motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) ("Rule 12(b)(6)") tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. Kost v. Kozakiewicz, 1 F.3d 176, 183 (3d Cir. 1993). In deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the court is not opining on whether the plaintiff will be likely to prevail on the merits; rather, when considering a motion to dismiss, the court accepts as true all well-pled factual allegations in the complaint and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. U.S. Express Lines Ltd. v. Higgins, 281 F.3d 383, 388 (3d Cir. 2002). While a complaint does not need detailed factual allegations to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must provide more than labels and conclusions. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). A "formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Id. (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level" and "sufficient to state a claim for relief that is plausible on its face." Id. "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." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

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. . . . Where a complaint pleads facts that are "merely consistent with" a defendant's liability, it "stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of 'entitlement to relief.'"

Id. at 1949 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556) (internal citations omitted).

Two working principles underlie Twombly. Id. First, with respect to mere conclusory statements, a court need not accept as true all the allegations contained in a complaint. "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.) Second, to survive a motion to dismiss, a claim must state a plausible claim for relief. Id. at 1950. "Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. (citing Iqbal v. Hasty, 490 F.3d 143, 157-58). "But 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 'show[n]- that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Id. (quoting FED. R. CIV. P. 8(a)(2)). A court considering a motion to dismiss may begin by identifying allegations in the complaint that are not entitled to the assumption of truth because they are mere conclusions. "While ...


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