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Hunt v. Potter County

United States District Court, M.D. Pennsylvania

May 17, 2017

ROY HUNT, Plaintiff,
v.
POTTER COUNTY, GLENN C. DRAKE, II, SUSAN KEFOVER, PAUL HEIMEL, DOUGLAS MORLEY, ANGELA MILFORD, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Matthew W. Brann United States District Judge.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff was a corrections officer at the Potter County Jail for fourteen years prior to his February 2016 termination. He brings the instant action, three counts of First Amendment retaliation and a count pursuant to Pennsylvania's Whistleblower Law, against Potter County, its three county commissioners, the county sheriff and jail warden, and the deputy warden. Defendants have moved to dismiss the complaint asserting that the action must proceed under the terms of a collective bargaining agreement. Because Plaintiff's claims do not arise under, nor require interpretation of the collective bargaining agreement, Defendants' motion will be denied.

         II. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a defendant may file a motion to dismiss for “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” Such a motion “tests the legal sufficiency of a pleading” and “streamlines litigation by dispensing with needless discovery and factfinding.”[1] “Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes a court to dismiss a claim on the basis of a dispositive issue of law.”[2]This is true of any claim, “without regard to whether it is based on an outlandish legal theory or on a close but ultimately unavailing one.”[3]

         Beginning in 2007, the Supreme Court of the United States initiated what some scholars have termed the Roberts Court's “civil procedure revival” by significantly tightening the standard that district courts must apply to 12(b)(6) motions.[4] In two landmark decisions, Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombly and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the Roberts Court “changed . . . the pleading landscape” by “signal[ing] to lower-court judges that the stricter approach some had been taking was appropriate under the Federal Rules.”[5] More specifically, the Court in these two decisions “retired” the lenient “no-set-of-facts test” set forth in Conley v. Gibson and replaced it with a more exacting “plausibility” standard.[6]

         Accordingly, after Twombly and Iqbal, “[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face'”[7] “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.”[8] “Although the plausibility standard does not impose a probability requirement, it does require a pleading to show more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully.”[9] Moreover, “[a]sking for plausible grounds . . . calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of [wrongdoing].”[10]

         The plausibility determination is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.”[11] No matter the context, however, “[w]here 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.'”[12]

         When disposing of a motion to dismiss, a court must “accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint and draw all inferences from the facts alleged in the light most favorable to [the plaintiff].”[13] However, “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in the complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.”[14] “After Iqbal, it is clear that conclusory or ‘bare-bones' allegations will no longer survive a motion to dismiss.”[15] “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.”[16]

         As a matter of procedure, the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit has instructed that:

Under the pleading regime established by Twombly and Iqbal, a court reviewing the sufficiency of a complaint must take three steps. First, it must tak[e] note of the elements [the] plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, it should identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, [w]hen there are well-pleaded factual allegations, [the] court should assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief.[17]

         I turn now to the Plaintiff's factual allegations, which I must accept as true on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion.

         B. Facts alleged in the complaint

         Plaintiff, Roy Hunt, hereinafter “Hunt, ” was hired in 2002 as a corrections officer at the Potter County Jail. Defendant Potter County is the government entity that presumably owns and operates the Potter County Jail. Defendant Glenn Drake, II, hereinafter “Drake, ” is the Warden of the Potter County Jail. Defendant Angela Milford, hereinafter “Milford, ” is the Deputy Warden of the Potter County Jail. Defendants Susan Kefover, hereinafter “Kefover;” Paul Heimel, hereinafter “Heimel;” and Douglas Morley, hereinafter Morley, ” are Potter County Commissioners.

         Hunt was both a corrections officer in the jail and a shop steward for the jail's labor union. “Pursuant to his official duties as shop steward, Plaintiff would routinely participate in union activity, including[, ] but not limited to[, ] meeting with Potter County and Jail management on union matter, negotiating collective bargaining agreements, resolving issues with working conditions, assisting employees facing disciplinary action, filing grievances, investigating grievances, and adjusting grievances and dispute.”[18] “Plaintiff was a vocal proponent of enforcing the collective bargaining agreements throughout his time at the jail.”[19]

         “Traditionally, Potter County has employed the individual who is the current Sheriff of Potter County, an elected County official, as the Warden of the jail.”[20] In 2015, the incumbent sheriff did not run for re-election. Plaintiff, Defendant Drake, and another corrections officer, Ralph Briggs, Sr., hereinafter “Briggs, ” ran for the vacant position.

         “Prior to the primary election in May 2015, it came to Plaintiff's attention that Defendant Drake was conducting election activities on County property, in his corrections officer uniform, and during time that he was to have been at work for the County, in direct violation of prevailing law.”[21] Hunt reported this to the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. “Defendant Drake became aware of this report almost immediately and angrily confronted Plaintiff.”[22] Drake was ultimately elected Sheriff and subsequently became the Warden of the Potter County Jail on January 4, 2016.

         “Upon Defendant Drake's becoming Warden of the jail, he met with Plaintiff and a union representative and discussed leaving the election issues in the past.”[23] “Almost immediately after Defendant Drake became Warden, Defendants Drake and Milford began to initiate unfounded disciplinary warnings for violations of cell phone protocols instituted by Defendant Drake and allegedly witnessed by Defendant Milford, to which Plaintiff filed grievances.”[24]

         Drake terminated Briggs on January 13, 2016, a decision ratified by the Potter County Commissioners on January 21, 2016. Hunt, as union steward, filed a grievance on Briggs's behalf. Hunt, on behalf of Briggs, ordered video surveillance footage from the jail, because “part of the termination case against Mr. Briggs was that he was accused of sleeping on the job, which was false.”[25] Hunt ordered the footage because “Defendants Drake and Milford, at least, were aware of other corrections officers sleeping on the job in the jail control room, who had not been disciplined and that this sleeping was depicted on various surveillance tapes from February 14, 2016.”[26]

         On February 18, 2016, Hunt contacted Kefover to obtain the surveillance footage requested. Kefover told Hunt that she would have to ask “the solicitor in order to determine if she could provide the video.”[27] “On February 23, 2016, Defendants Drake and Milford met with Plaintiff and a union representative and terminated him” for “his ‘insubordination' by approaching Defendant Kefover to request the surveillance video.”[28] The Potter County Commissioners later ratified Hunt's termination.

         C. Analysis

         Hunt brings four claims against Defendants. The first three are allegations of First Amendment retaliation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Count I is retaliation in violation of his right to free speech; Count II is retaliation in violation of his right to associate; Count III is retaliation for his political activity. Count IV is a claim that Hunt was terminated in violation of Pennsylvania's Whistleblower Law, 43 P.S. § 1421.

         Defendants argue under both Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and (6) that a collective bargaining agreement, hereinafter “CBA, ” governs the dispute and that Hunt did not exhaust his administrative remedies under the CBA pursuant to Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 185, and his claims are preempted by both Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act and Sections 7 and 8 of the National Labor Relations Act, 29 U.S.C. § 157.[29]

         I have reviewed with particularity the Defendants' arguments. I believe that they misapprehend the nature of this action. Simply by virtue of the existence of a CBA, does not imply that Plaintiff's claims necessarily arise out of the CBA, nor do they require interpretation of the CBA, nor are they governed by the CBA. Plaintiff's claims appear independent of the CBA. Specifically,

Section 301 of the Labor Management Relations Act “LMRA” states:
Suits for violation of contracts between an employer and a labor organization representing employees in an industry affecting commerce ... or between any such labor organizations, may be brought in any district court of the United States having jurisdiction of the parties, without respect to the amount in controversy or without regard to the citizenship of the parties.[30]

         “Congress's purpose in enacting § 301 of the LMRA was to create a uniform doctrine of federal labor law because “the subject matter of § 301(a) is peculiarly one that calls for uniform law.”[31] “As the Supreme Court explained, because individual contract terms could have different meanings under state and federal law, ‘the process of negotiating an agreement would be made immeasurably more difficult by the necessity of trying to formulate contract provisions in such a way as to contain the same meaning under two or more systems of law which might someday be invoked in enforcing the contract.'”[32] “However, the LMRA only pre-empts state law claims that require the interpretation of the labor agreement, and says nothing about the substantive rights ... when adjudication of those rights does not depend upon the interpretation of such agreements.”[33]

         Moreover, “Section 301 [of the LMRA] preempts an application of state law “only if such application requires the interpretation of a collective-bargaining agreement.”[34] “§ 301(a) is more than jurisdictional- it authorizes federal courts to fashion a body of federal law for the enforcement of these collective bargaining agreements.”[35] “A state-law claim is preempted by § 301 if the claim is (1) founded directly on rights created by collective-bargaining agreements or (2) substantially dependent on analysis of a collective bargaining agreement.”[36] The preemptive force of § 301 applies to tort as well as contract actions. Section 301 does not preempt “state rules that proscribe conduct, or establish rights and obligations, independent of a labor contract.”[37]

         I review the pertinent provisions of the National Labor Relations Act at length. Section 7 states:

Employees shall have the right to self-organization, to form, join, or assist labor organizations, to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing, and to engage in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection, and shall also have the right to refrain from any or all of such activities except to the extent that such right may be affected by an agreement requiring ...

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