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Flanagan v. Borough of Laflin

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

March 28, 2014

BOROUGH OF LAFLIN, PAUL BENDERAVICH, Individually, CARL YASTREMSKI, Individually, PATRICK GILHOOLEY, Individually, ANTHONY D'ELISEO, Individually, THOMAS PARRY, Individually, Defendants.


A. RICHARD CAPUTO, District Judge.

Presently before the Court is the Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Michael Flanagan's ("Flanagan") Amended Complaint (Doc. 14) filed by Defendants Borough of Laflin (the "Borough"), Paul Benderavich ("Benderavich"), Carl Yastremski ("Yastremski"), Patrick Gilhooley ("Gilhooley"), Anthony D'Eliseo ("D'Eliseo"), and Thomas Parry ("Parry") (collectively, "Defendants").[1] Flanagan contends that Defendants retaliated against him in violation of the First Amendment, deprived him of his due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment, and defamed him and cast him in a false light. Defendants' motion to dismiss will be granted in part and denied in part. Because Flanagan adequately states claims under the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution, Defendants' motion to dismiss the federal law claims will be denied. However, because the Borough is entitled to immunity pursuant to the Pennsylvania Political Subdivision Tort Claims Act and Individual Defendants are entitled to high public official immunity, Defendants' motion to dismiss the state law claims will be granted.

I. Background

The facts as set forth in the Amended Complaint are as follows:

Flanagan has worked for the Borough for fourteen (14) years. ( Am. Compl., ¶ 1.) In 2008, Flanagan became the Borough's Police Chief. ( Id. ) Defendants Benderavich and Yastremski are both alleged to be Borough Council President. ( Id. at ¶¶ 3-4.) Defendants Gilhooley and D'Eliseo are Borough Council Members. ( Id. at ¶¶ 5-6.) Defendant Parry is Borough Council Vice-President. ( Id. at ¶ 7.) Individual Defendants are being sued in their individual capacities. ( Id. at ¶¶ 3-7.)

In or about March 2013, Flanagan heard rumors that Defendants wanted to eliminate the police department. ( Id. at ¶ 22.) Flanagan inquired as to the truth of the rumor, and Defendants confirmed its accuracy. ( Id. at ¶ 23.) Flanagan advised Defendants that such an action would be unlawful because the police union had an existing contract with the Borough. ( Id. at ¶ 24.) Benderavich responded to Flanagan by stating "we can do what we want." ( Id. at ¶ 25.)

On numerous occasions, Benderavich illegally instructed Flanagan to disregard orders issued by the Laflin Borough Mayor as Benderavich attempted to usurp the Mayor's power. ( Id. at ¶ 32.) Benderavich's orders were in direct conflict with those given by the Mayor who is in charge of the operations of the police department. ( Id. ) For example, on or about May 29, 2013, Benderavich and Flanagan got into an argument over shifts Benderavich wanted changed. ( Id. at ¶ 35.) Flanagan became ill after that argument and was hospitalized. ( Id. )

Benderavich also requested Flanagan to order Borough police officers to "write more tickets." ( Id. at ¶ 33.) Benderavich threatened that the police department would be disbanded if more tickets were not written. ( Id. at ¶ 34.)

On or about October 17, 2013, Individual Defendants voted at an official Borough meeting to demote Flanagan and hire another individual as Police Chief. ( Id. at ¶ 14.) Prior to his demotion, Flanagan engaged in no wrongdoing. ( Id. at ¶ 16.) And, before being demoted, Flanagan was not given notice of the charges against him, an explanation of the evidence against him, or an opportunity to rebut such allegations. ( Id. at ¶¶ 18, 19.)

On November 26, 2013, the day after Flanagan commenced this action, Defendants mailed a letter requesting him to respond by the next day. ( Id. at ¶¶ 41-43.) The letter provided if Flanagan did not timely respond, "the Borough will have no choice but to discharge you from your service as a police officer." ( Id. at ¶ 43.)

Thereafter, on or about January 6, 2014, Defendants disclosed an alleged "request for investigation" to the local news media. ( Id. at ¶ 44.) That letter was published in the newspaper on January 9, 2014 and was available to be downloaded on the website of the Citizens' Voice. ( Id. at ¶¶ 44, 61.) While Flanagan was not the main focus of the letter, the letter sets forth allegations indicating that Flanagan conducted himself in a manner unbecoming of a police officer. ( Id. at ¶ 46.)

Based on the foregoing, Flanagan commenced this action on November 25, 2013 asserting two claims. Flanagan asserted in Count I that he was denied his right to procedural due process when he was demoted, while Count II claimed that he was retaliated against in violation of the First Amendment after he opposed the proposed disbanding of the police department and he refused to follow the unlawful orders issued by Benderavich. (Doc. 1.)

Thereafter, on January 10, 2014, Flanagan filed a four-count Amended Complaint. ( Am. Compl. ) Counts I and II of the Amended Complaint again allege claims for violations of the Fourteenth and First Amendments respectively. ( Compare Am. Compl., Counts I & II, with Compl., Counts I & II.) Count III of the Amended Complaint asserts a First Amendment claim for Defendants' alleged retaliation against Flanagan after he commenced the instant lawsuit. ( Am. Compl., Count III.) Count IV of the Amended Complaint asserts state law claims for defamation and false light invasion of privacy. ( Id. at Count IV.)

Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint in its entirety on January 24, 2014. (Doc. 14.) Defendants' brief in support of its motion was timely filed on February 7, 2014. (Doc. 15.) On February 14, 2014, Flanagan filed his brief in opposition to the motion to dismiss. (Doc. 16.) Defendants filed a reply brief in further support of their motion on February 27, 2014. (Doc. 17.) Defendants' motion to dismiss is now fully briefed and ripe for disposition.

II. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court's role is limited to determining if a plaintiff is entitled to offer evidence in support of their claims. See Semerenko v. Cendant Corp., 223 F.3d 165, 173 (3d Cir. 2000). The Court does not consider whether a plaintiff will ultimately prevail. See id. A defendant bears the burden of establishing that a plaintiff's complaint fails to state a claim. See Gould Elecs. v. United States, 220 F.3d 169, 178 (3d Cir. 2000).

"A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain... a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The statement required by Rule 8(a)(2) must "give the defendant fair notice of what the... claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007) (per curiam) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007)). Detailed factual allegations are not required. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955. However, mere conclusory statements will not do; "a complaint must do more than allege the plaintiff's entitlement to relief." Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009). Instead, a complaint must "show" this entitlement by alleging sufficient facts. Id. "While legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1950, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). As such, "[t]he touchstone of the pleading standard is plausability." Bistrian v. Levi, 696 F.3d 352, 365 (3d Cir. 2012).

The inquiry at the motion to dismiss stage 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, 641 F.3d 560, 563 (3d Cir. 2011).

Dismissal is appropriate only if, accepting as true all the facts alleged in the complaint, a plaintiff has not pleaded "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face, " Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, meaning enough factual allegations "to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of'" each necessary element. Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). "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." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937. "When there are well-pleaded factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

In deciding a motion to dismiss, the Court should consider the complaint, exhibits attached to the complaint, and matters of public record. Mayer v. Belichick, 605 F.3d 223, 230 (3d Cir. 2010) (citing Pension Benefit Guar. Corp. v. White Consol. Indus., Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993)). The Court may also consider "undisputedly authentic" documents when the plaintiff's claims are based on the documents and the defendant has attached copies of the documents to the motion to dismiss. Pension Benefit Guar., 998 F.2d at 1196. The Court need not assume the plaintiff can prove facts that were not alleged in the complaint, see City of Pittsburgh v. W. Penn Power Co., 147 F.3d 256, 263 & n.13 (3d Cir. 1998), or credit a complaint's "bald ...

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