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Mitchell v. Gobel

United States District Court, W.D. Pennsylvania

March 28, 2018

TROY MITCHELL, Plaintiff,
v.
GEORGE GOBEL, in his individual capacity, J. JASON ELASH, in his individual capacity, LIBERTY BOROUGH, and SOUTH ALLEGHENY SCHOOL DISTRICT, Defendants.

         Electronic Filing

          Joel S. Sansone, Esquire Elizabeth Tuttle, Esquire Danielle M. Vugrinovich, Esquire Estell K. McGrath, Esquire April L. Cressler, Esquire Paul Alexander Custer, Esquire Timothy R. Smith, Esquire

          OPINION

          David Stewart Cercone United States District Judge

         Troy Mitchell ("plaintiff") commenced this action seeking redress for alleged violation of his First Amendment rights. Presently before the court are defendants' motions to dismiss. For the reasons set forth below, the motions will be granted.

         It is well-settled that in reviewing a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) "[t]he applicable standard of review requires the court to accept as true all allegations in the complaint and all reasonable inferences that can be drawn therefrom, and view them in the light most favorable to the non-moving party." Rocks v. City of Philadelphia, 868 F.2d 644, 645 (3d Cir. 1989). Under the Supreme Court's decision in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 561 (2007), dismissal of a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) is proper only where the averments of the complaint plausibly fail to raise directly or inferentially the material elements necessary to obtain relief under a viable legal theory of recovery. Id. at 544. In other words, the allegations of the complaint must be grounded in enough of a factual basis to move the claim from the realm of mere possibility to one that shows entitlement by presenting "a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         "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." Id. In contrast, pleading facts that only offer "'labels or conclusions' or 'a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do, '" nor will advancing only factual allegations that are "'merely consistent with' a defendant's liability." Id. Similarly, tendering only "naked assertions" that are devoid of "further factual enhancement" falls short of presenting sufficient factual content to permit an inference that what has been presented is more than a mere possibility of misconduct. Id. at 1949-50; see also Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563 n. 8 (A complaint states a claim where its factual averments sufficiently raise a "'reasonably founded hope that the [discovery] process will reveal relevant evidence' to support the claim.") (quoting Dura Pharmaceuticals, Inc. v. Broudo, 544 U.S. 336, 347 (2005) & Blue Chip Stamps v. Manor Drug Stores, 421 U.S. 723, 741 (1975)); accord Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir. 1997) (a court need not credit "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions" in assessing a motion to dismiss) (citing with approval Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1357 (2d ed. 1997) ("courts, when examining 12(b)(6) motions, have rejected 'legal conclusions, ' 'unsupported conclusions, ' 'unwarranted inferences, ' 'unwarranted deductions, ' 'footless conclusions of law, ' or 'sweeping legal conclusions cast in the form of factual allegations.'").

         This is not to be understood as imposing a probability standard at the pleading stage. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 ("'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.'"); Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 235 (3d Cir. 2008) (same). Instead, "[t]he Supreme Court's Twombly formulation of the pleading standard can be summed up thus: 'stating ... a claim requires a complaint with enough factual matter (taken as true) to suggest the required element ... [and provides] enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element.'" Phillips, 515 F.3d at 235; see also Wilkerson v. New Media Technology Charter School Inc., 522 F.3d 315, 321 (3d Cir. 2008) ("'The complaint must state 'enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the necessary element.'") (quoting Phillips, 515 F.3d at 235) (citations omitted). "Once a claim has been stated adequately, it may be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 563.

         The complaint as read in the light most favorable to plaintiff provides the background that follows. In 2015 plaintiff was a part-time police officer who ran for the elected position of school director in the defendant South Allegheny School District. Complaint (Doc. No. 1) at ¶ 9, 13. The nomination petition he initially filed with the Elections Department of Allegheny County contained "several minor errors." Id. at ¶ 14. Notwithstanding that such minor errors are common among inexperienced candidates and often the candidate is permitted to refile the petition upon becoming aware of such errors, defendant J. Jason Elash, Esquire, "a practicing attorney barred in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania" filed objections to plaintiff's petition and a petition to set it aside on behalf of a local citizen. Id. at ¶ 15. Elash then filed additional objections on behalf of two additional local citizens, one of whom was a democrat and one whom was a republican. Id. at ¶ 16.

         Elash was a colleague, close friend and a co-worker of defendant George Gobel. Id. at ¶ 17. Gobel held multiple positions in the community: he was the solicitor of both the South Allegheny School District ("the school district" or "the district") and Liberty Borough ("the borough"); and he also held the position of human resources officer at the school district. Id. at ¶ 6. Plaintiff believes that Gobel instructed Elash to file the objections and petition to prevent plaintiff from running for office and that Elash did so for the purpose of accomplishing the same. Id. at ¶¶ 18-19.

         Gobal then embarked on a series of undertakings to dissuade plaintiff from pursuing his campaign for office. Gobel accused plaintiff of various violations stemming from his incorrect petition. Id. at ¶ 22. These included making a false statement under oath, violating borough ordinances that purportedly precluded officers from running for office, and engaging in conduct unbecoming an officer. Id.

         In his capacity as borough solicitor Gobel caused the scheduling of a Loudermill hearing on the alleged violations. Id. Just prior to the scheduled hearing Gobel stated to a lieutenant in the borough police force that "[plaintiff] needs to drop out, or things will get dirty." Id. at ¶ 24. The hearing was held on March 27, 2015. Id. at ¶ 25. At the hearing Gobel stated to plaintiff: "you are not to run. I have my people picked." Id. at ¶ 26. He also accused plaintiff of engaging in prohibited activity by running for office while being a police officer and threatened to report the matter to the district attorney if plaintiff did not withdraw from the race. Id. at ¶ 27. These accusations were "false." Id. at ¶ 28.

         Plaintiff was not disciplined or criminally prosecuted at the conclusion of the Loudermill hearing. Plaintiff continued in his campaign for school director. Id. at ¶ 29.

         In August of 2015 Gobel began raising the issue of amending the collective bargaining agreement ("CBA") governing the borough's police force. A grant from the district attorney's office had created the funding for a full-time police officer position to act as a school resource officer for the school district. Plaintiff was a union steward for the rank and file employees of the police force. Id. at ¶¶ 11, 31-32.

         Gobel proposed an addendum to the CBA that would prohibit the school resource officer from engaging in political activity. This included holding any elected or appointed office on any level of government. Id. at ¶ 33. At that time five employees of the school district held a political office within the borough. Id. at ¶ 34. Gobel began to negotiate with plaintiff about adding the addendum to the CBA. Id. at ¶ 31.

         In September of 2015, Gobel "verbally offered [] plaintiff the full-time school resource officer position on the condition that plaintiff withdraw from the race for school director." Id. at ¶ 37. Plaintiff did not respond to the offer. Id.

         On September 14, 2015, Gobel drafted a petition to remove plaintiff from the race. The petition cited "the possibility of plaintiff's employment" as the resource officer and a potential conflict with the proposed addendum as the reasons for the withdrawal. Id. at ¶ 38. The addendum had not been added to the CBA. Id. at ¶ 39. Gobel met with plaintiff at the police department and informed him that the petition had to be filed that day. Id. at ¶ 40. Plaintiff decline and continued to run. Id. at ¶ 41.

         On September 16, 2015, the school district adopted a resolution creating the new resource officer position. It then appointed Glenn R. Bonczek to the position. Id. at ¶ 42. On September 18, 2015, Gobel terminated negotiations with plaintiff's union regarding the addition of the addendum to the CBA. Id. at ¶ 43.

         At some time in the past Liberty Borough Chief of Police Luke Rilley had informed plaintiff that he would be promoted to lieutenant upon Lieutenant Roper's retirement from the police department. Id. at ¶ 49. Lieutenant Roper retired in October of 2015. Id. at ¶ 50. Plaintiff was not promoted. Id. Instead, a less experienced and less qualified officer, Ray Johnson, was promoted to lieutenant. Id. at ¶ 51. At the same time, a less experienced and less qualified officer, Josh Byers, was promoted to a newly created position of sergeant. Id. at ¶ 52.

         Plaintiff asked Chief Rilley why plaintiff had not been promoted to lieutenant notwithstanding the prior assurances Chief Rilley had given. Id. at ¶ 57. Chief Rilley responded: "[you] should not have burned [your] bridges." Id.

         All police department promotions must be voted on and approved by Liberty Borough's council. The council voted to promote Johnson and to create the position of sergeant and promote Byers into it. Id. at ¶ 53.

         Based on the above, plaintiff has formed the following beliefs:

1) Gobel and Elash conspired to prevent plaintiff from running for office; Id. at ¶ 20;
2) Gobel scheduled the Loudermill hearing to prevent plaintiff from pursuing his candidacy for school director; Id. at ¶ 23;
3) Gobel made the threat of making things get dirty, the accusation that plaintiff was engaging in prohibited activity and the threat of reporting plaintiff to the district attorney to prevent plaintiff from pursuing his campaign; Id. at ¶ 29;
4) Gobel proposed the addendum to the CBA solely to prevent plaintiff from running for office and participating in the election process; Id. at ¶ 36;
5) Gobel used his power and influence as solicitor for the borough and human resources officer for the district to attempt to "force" plaintiff to withdraw from the race; Id. at ¶ 44;
6) Gobel used his power and influence as solicitor for the borough and human resources officer to attempt to implement policies that made plaintiff's appointment to the fulltime position of school resource officer impossible; Id. at ¶ 45;
7) Gobel created the proposed addendum to the CBA in retaliation for plaintiff's refusal to withdraw from the race; Id. at ¶ 46;
8) Gobel created the proposed addendum to the CBA for the sole purpose of preventing plaintiff from continuing with his ...

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