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Caplin v. Lackawanna County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

February 14, 2017

CASEY CALPIN, Plaintiff,
v.
LACKAWANNA COUNTY, BRIAN LOUGHNEY, in his individual capacity, Defendants

          MEMORANDUM

          Malachy E. Mannion United States District Judge

         Pending before the court is defendants Lackawanna County and Brian Loughney's motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. 17). Also pending is plaintiff Casey Calpin's motion to strike the exhibits attached to defendants' answer to plaintiff's amended complaint. (Doc. 13). Based upon the following analysis, the court will deny the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings and, will grant in part and deny in part the plaintiff's motion to strike.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         By way of relevant background, on October 3, 2016, the plaintiff commenced the instant action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983, claiming that the defendants engaged in retaliation due to her participation in First Amendment protected activities. (Doc. 1). On October 4, 2016, the plaintiff filed an amended complaint. (Doc. 3). The plaintiff, a former correctional officer for Lackawanna County Prison (“LCP”) for over 15 years, testified at a deposition in a federal civil rights case, namely, Pleasants v. Lackawanna County, Civil No. 13-1611, M.D.Pa., on March 1, 2016.[1] On June 20, 2016, the plaintiff was interviewed by defendant Loughney, Deputy Director for Human Resources for defendant Lackawanna County, and he possessed the deposition transcript from the plaintiff's deposition in the Pleasants' case. Loughney asked plaintiff if she testified truthfully in her deposition and she responded that she did. Subsequently, on July 14, 2016, the plaintiff was terminated by the defendants allegedly “because she provided truthful testimony under oath.” The plaintiff also alleges that after she was terminated the defendants appealed her unemployment compensation award “based solely on the testimony she provided under oath at a deposition.”

         In her amended complaint, the plaintiff asserts two claims relating to her termination. In Count I, the plaintiff claims that defendants, Loughney and Lackawanna County, terminated her in direct retaliation for engaging in a First Amendment protected activity, i.e., giving sworn deposition testimony in a federal court case. The plaintiff also alleges that the defendants retaliated against her due to her testimony by appealing her award of unemployment compensation and by using her testimony as evidence at the appeal hearing. The plaintiff states that despite this evidence the unemployment compensation referee upheld her award and found that the defendants did not have just cause to terminate her and failed to prove willful misconduct.

         In Count II, the plaintiff asserts a municipal liability claim against Lackawanna County under §1983 because it failed to train and supervise its employees in a way that would ensure they did not harm employees engaging in truthful testimony related to court proceedings.

         As relief, the plaintiff requests reinstatement, back pay and front pay as well as compensatory damages against both defendants as well as punitive damages as against Loughney.

         On November 9, 2016, the defendants filed an answer to the amended complaint, which both denies any liability and raises numerous affirmative defenses, including failure to state a claim and qualified immunity. (Doc. 12). With their answer, the defendants attached eight exhibits to support and supplement their responses and statements made in the answer. The plaintiff then filed a motion to strike the exhibits attached to the defendants' answer, (Doc. 13), and a brief in support of her motion, (Doc. 14). On November 18, 2016, the defendants filed a brief in opposition, (Doc. 16).

         On November 18, 2016, the defendants filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings. (Doc. 17). The defendants filed their brief in support on November 21, 2016. (Doc. 19). On December 5, 2016, the plaintiff filed a brief in opposition to the defendants' motion, (Doc. 20), to which the defendants filed a reply brief on December 21, 2016, (Doc. 23). Both motions are ripe for this court's decision.

         This court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§1331 and 1343.

         II. LEGAL STANDARDS

         A. Rule 12(c)

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) states, “[a]fter the pleadings are closed-but early enough not to delay trial-a party may move for judgment on the pleadings.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Judgment will be granted if “the movant clearly establishes there are no material issues of fact, and he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Sikirica v. Nationwide Ins. Co., 416 F.3d 214, 220 (3d Cir. 2005). Generally, the standard for deciding a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) is identical to that for deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). Turbe v. Gov't of V.I., 938 F.2d 427, 428 (3d Cir. 1991). The court must view “the facts presented in the pleadings and the inferences drawn therefrom in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Id.; see also Castaneira v. Potteiger, 621 Fed.Appx. 116, 119-20 (3d Cir. 2015) (not precedential); Washington v. Hanshaw, 552 Fed.Appx. 169, 171 (3d Cir. 2014) (not precedential). However, the court need not accept inferences drawn by the plaintiff if they are unsupported by the facts as set forth in the complaint. See California Pub. Employee Ret. Sys. v. The Chubb Corp., 394 F.3d 126, 143 (3d Cir. 2004) (citing Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997)). The court also need not accept legal conclusions set forth as factual allegations. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 554, 555 (2007) (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).

         A viable complaint must include “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554 (rejecting the traditional 12(b)(6) standard set forth in Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 45-46 (1957)). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Id. at 555. See also Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 554, and providing further guidance on the standard set forth therein) (holding that, while the complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain more than a “formulaic recitation of the elements” of a claim and must state a claim that is plausible on its face).

         In deciding the defendants' motion, the court should generally consider only the allegations contained in the complaint, the exhibits attached to the complaint, matters of public record, and “undisputably authentic” documents which plaintiff has identified as the basis of his claim. See Pension Benefit Guarantee Corp. v. White Consolidated Industries, Inc., 998 F.2d 1192, 1196 (3d Cir. 1993). In addition, unlike a motion to dismiss, in ruling on a motion for judgment on the pleadings, “the court . . . reviews not only the complaint but also the answer and written instruments attached to the pleadings.” Brautigam v. Fraley, 684 F.Supp.2d 589, 591 (M.D. Pa. 2010).

         B. Section 1983

         To state a claim under section 1983, a plaintiff must meet two threshold requirements. She must allege: 1) that the alleged misconduct was committed by a person acting under color of state law; and 2) that as a result, she was deprived of rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution or laws of the United States. West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42 (1988); Parratt v. Taylor, 451 U.S. 527, 535 (1981), overruled in part on other grounds, Daniels v. Williams, 474 U.S. 327, 330-331 (1986). If a defendant fails to act under color of state law when engaged in the alleged misconduct, a civil rights claim under section 1983 fails as a matter of jurisdiction, Polk Cnty. v. Dodson, 454 U.S. 312, 315 (1981), and there is no need to determine whether a federal right has been violated. Rendell-Baker v. Kohn, 457 U.S. 830, 838 (1982). “A defendant in a civil rights action must have personal involvement in the alleged wrongs; liability cannot be predicated solely on the operation of respondeat superior.” Rode v. Dellarciprete, 845 F.2d 1195, 1207-08 (3d Cir. 1988). See also Sutton v. Rasheed, 323 F.3d 236, 249 (3d Cir. 2003) (citing Rode). “Personal involvement can be shown through allegations of personal direction or of actual knowledge and acquiescence.” Rode, 845 F.2d at 1207. Accord Robinson v. City of Pittsburgh, 120 F.3d 1286, 1293-96 (3d Cir. 1997); Baker v. Monroe Twp., 50 F.3d 1186, 1190-91 (3d Cir. 1995).

         With respect to punitive damages for a §1983 violation, this remedy is only available “when the defendant's conduct is shown to be motivated by evil motive or intent, or when it involves reckless or callous indifference to the federally protected rights of others.” Smith v. Wade, 461 U.S. 30 (1983). Regarding federal civil rights claims, “reckless indifference” refers to the defendant's knowledge of the illegality of his actions, not the egregiousness of his actions. Alexander v. Riga, 208 F.3d 419, 431 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Kolstad v. Am. Dental Ass'n, 527 U.S. 526, 536 (1999)).

         Since Lackawanna County is a municipal agency, the standards annunciated in Monell apply to it. See Malles v. Lehigh County, 639 F.Supp.2d 566 (E.D.Pa. 2009). Under the Supreme Court precedent of Monell v. Dep't. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978), a municipality can be held liable under §1983 only if the plaintiff shows that the violation of his federally protected rights resulted from the enforcement of a “policy” or “custom” of the local government. A court may find that a municipal policy exists when a “‘decisionmaker possess[ing] final authority to establish municipal policy with respect to the action' issues an official proclamation, policy, or edict.” Andrews v. City of Philadelphia, 895 F.2d 1469, 1480 (3d Cir. 1990) (quoting Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 481 (1986)). It is also possible for a court to find the existence of a municipal policy in “the isolated decision of an executive municipal policymaker.” City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 139 (1988). “A course of conduct is considered to be a ‘custom' when, though not authorized by law, ‘such practices of state officials [are] so permanent and well settled' as to virtually constitute law.” Andrews, 895 F.2d at 1480 (citations omitted). There must be a “direct causal link” between the municipal policy or custom and the alleged constitutional violation. City of Canton, Ohio v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 385 (1989).

         III. DISCUSSION

         The defendants' brief in support of their motion for judgment on the pleadings, (Doc. 19), argues that, pursuant to Rule 12(c), the plaintiff's amended complaint must be dismissed for failure to set forth actionable claims against them. Specifically, the defendants make the following arguments: 1) the plaintiff's First Amendment retaliation claim fails as a matter of law since the wrongdoing she admitted to while testifying in her deposition was not protected speech; 2) defendant Loughney is entitled to qualified immunity from suit; and 3) the plaintiff failed to allege that defendant Loughney was motivated by evil intent or that his conduct involved reckless or callous indifference, which thereby precludes her claim for punitive damages.

         A. Plaintiff's Motion to Strike Defendants' Exhibits

         Each of the theories for dismissal primarily rely on facts included in exhibits attached to the defendants' answer to the amended complaint. (Doc. 12). Therefore, at the outset, the court must determine whether the exhibits attached to defendants' answer may be considered for present purposes.

         Recently, this court considered a very similar issue in the case of Barnard v. Lackawanna County and Loughney, Civil No. 15-2220, M.D.Pa.[2]In Barnard, the plaintiff, an employee of Lackawanna County, participated in union picketing with the Lackawanna County Children & Youth unionized workers and she was subsequently suspended without pay allegedly due to her presence at the rally. The plaintiff claimed that her suspension by defendants Loughney and Lackawanna County was in retaliation for engaging in First Amendment protected activities. The defendants filed an answer to plaintiff's complaint which contained exhibits, some of which were similar to the exhibits submitted by the same ...


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