Casale v. Town of Ocean View et al

Filing 11

MEMORANDUM OPINION re 6 MOTION to Dismiss. Signed by Judge Richard G. Andrews on 2/21/2013. (nms)

IN THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF DELAWARE MICHAEL CASALE, Plaintiff, v. TOWN OF OCEAN VIEW, CONWAY GREGORY, individually and in his official as Town Manager, GORDON E. WOOD, SR., individually and in his official capacity as a member of the Town Council, ROBERT R. LAWLESS, individually and in his official capacity as a member of the Town Council, MICHELE STEFFENS, individually and in her official capacity as a member of the Town Council, GEOFFREY CHRIST, individually and in his official capacity as a member of the Town Council, PERRY MITCHELL, individually and in his official capacity as a member of the Town Council, C.A. No. 12-485-RGA Defendants. MEMORANDUM OPINION Charles Snyderman, Esq., Wilmington, Delaware; Attorney for PlaintiffMicha 1 Casale. Megan T. Mantzavinos, Esq., Wilmington, Delaware; Attorney for Defendants. Februaryril_, 2013 Wilmington, Delaware This is a motion to dismiss. Plaintiff Michael Casale files suit against Defenda ts Town of Ocean View, Conway Gregory, Gordon E. Wood, Sr., Robert R. Lawless, Michele teffens, Geoffrey Christ, and Perry Mitchell. 1 Casale alleges that Defendants illegally termina ed his employment with the Town. (D .I. 1). Casale brings four claims for recovery: ( 1) a se tion 1983 procedural due process claim; (2) a breach of the implied covenant of good faith and f: ir dealing claim; (3) a wrongful termination claim; and (4) a breach of contract claim. (D.I. 1, ~~ 29-34). Defendants now move to dismiss all of these claims for failure to state a claim. FACTUAL ALLEGATIONS As this is a motion to dismiss, the following factual allegations are accepted as rue and viewed in the light most favorable to Casale. Casale was employed by the Town of Ocean View for 21 years as a maintenan e worker. (D.I. 1, ~ 1). He injured his neck on February 9, 2010 while plowing snow on the job. (!d. at~ 2 14). The injury left him temporarily disabled and he was approved for workers' comp nsation. (!d.). He remained out of work until approximately August 18,2010, when he receive a letter from Defendant Gregory, who is the town manager, informing him that he was termin ed due to unauthorized absences and the Town's need to fill his position. (!d. at~~ 15-16). On ugust 23, 2010, Casale sent a letter in response to Defendant Gregory, as well as to Casale's sup rvisor, Defendant McMullen, along with other municipal officials. (!d. at~ 17). The letter st ed that Casale had been approved for workers' compensation due to his injury and that he had continuously updated the Town in regard to his ongoing medical care. (!d.). The lette also 1 The Town Manager and Town Council Defendants are sued in both their individual and official capaci ies. 2 The proposed amended complaint (D.I. 8-1) is not materially different from the original complaint. I stated that Defendant McMullen was kept up to date on the situation and that no one i formed Casale that his absences were considered unauthorized. (Jd.). Finally, the letter stated that Casale intended to return to work when capable and that he contested the termination On October 26, 2010, Casale sent another letter requesting his personnel file a any 18). The letter stated that Casale was authorized by his doctor to re urn to work on November 8, 2010. (Id. at~ 19). Casale also sent "return to work" forms tot e Town. (ld. ). Two days later, Defendant McMullen circulated an email among Town employe s that the Town had received Casale's return to work forms and that Casale should not be allowe on work premises should he appear. (ld. at~ 20). On November 21,2010, Casale sent another letter repeating his request for the personnel file. (Jd. at~ 21 ). This letter also requested are ponse to his previous letter, questioned his termination in light of Town Code§ 28-42, 3 request d compensation for his sick leave and vacation time, and referred to his 21 years of servi e for the Town and the fact that he never received warning of termination. (Jd.). Casale received a November 30,2010 letter in response from the Town's attorn y, Dennis Schrader. (Jd. at~ 22). Schrader informed Casale that he would be permitted t inspect his personnel file. (Id.). Schrader also represented that he would need to refer questio s concerning Town Code§ 28-42 to the Town's insurance carrier before providing Casal an answer. (Jd.). Casale never received an answer concerning Town Code§ 28-42. (Jd. a ~ 23). Casale finally received his personnel file after he sent a third request dated December 2 , 2010. 3 Town Code§ 28-42 states that employees of the Town are eligible for workers' compensation leave an that an employee shall be allowed to remain absent from work in accordance with Delaware state laws. 2 I I l other documents relating to his discharge, as well as the dates of his alleged unauthori ed at~ l I f employment. (Id.). absences. (Jd. I (!d. at~ 24). Casale then sent a February 2, 2011 letter to Defendant Gregory stating t at the file contained no supporting basis for the allegations that Casale had unauthorized absence . (!d. at ~ 25). In response, Schrader sent a February 8, 2011 letter informing Casale that the To was not required to answer questions regarding the unauthorized absences. (!d. at~ 26). After another inquiry from Casale, Defendant Schrader responded with a February 28, 2011letter th t the Town was not required to hold Casale's position open for as long as "[he] may choose absent," despite Defendant Schrader's knowledge that Casale's absences were not vol due to injury. (!d. at~~ tary but 27-28). DISCUSSION In reviewing a motion filed under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)( 6), the Court must accept all factual allegations in a complaint as true and take them in the light mos favorable to Plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007); Christopher v. arbury, 536 U.S. 403, 406 (2002). "When there are well-ple[d] factual allegations, a court sho ld assume their veracity and then determine whether they plausibly give rise to an entitle ent to relief." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009). Such a determination is a context- pecific task requiring the court "to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." !d. In addition, when ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, the Court may consider the plea ings, public record, orders, exhibits attached to the Complaint, and documents incorporated i to the Complaint by reference. Tellabs, Inc. v. Makor Issues & Rights, Ltd., 551 U.S. 308, 32 (2007); Oshiver v. Levin, Fishbein, Sedran & Berman, 38 F.3d 1380, 1384-85 n. 2 (3d Cir. 19 4). In regard to Defendants' motion to dismiss the Section 1983 claim for a failure o provide procedural due process, Defendants first argue that Casale's claim must fail because he failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. It is true that "[b]efore bringing a claim for failur to 3 provide due process, 'a plaintiff must have taken advantage of the processes that are a ailable to him or her, unless those processes are unavailable or patently inadequate.'" Wilson v. Inc., 475 F.3d 166, 174 (3d Cir. 2007) (quoting Alvin v. Suzuki, 227 F.3d 107, 116 (3d Cir. 2000)). Defendants argue that Casale never submitted a formal grievance as required y Town Code§ 28-45. According to Defendants, Casale's August 23,2010 letter cannot be co sidered a formal grievance. They argue that this is because the letter does not explicitly state it i intended to serve as a grievance, as the word grievance is not mentioned in the letter, and the gr· evance code provision is not cited. (D.I. 9, p. 8). Additionally, Defendants argue that Casale informed that the Town did not understand that he had filed a grievance in response to August 23, 2010 letter and gave him explicit instruction how to do so. (ld). These in directed Casale to "address a letter to Mr. McMullen presenting [a] grievance to him" ursuant to Town Code§ 28-45(8)(2). (D.I. 7, Exh. A at 1). According to Defendants, Casale's f: ilure to comply with these instructions means he failed to comply with the grievance process. Town Code§ 28-45(8)(2) details the manner in which a Town employee shoul submit a grievance: "An employee with a grievance may, within 10 working days of the cause o grievance, present the grievance in writing to his or her department supervisor." Secti n 2845(A) defines a "grievance" as "a formal written complaint. .. which expresses dissatis ction concerning a condition of employment or treatment by management, supervisors, or ot er employees." Despite Defendants' arguments to the contrary, Casale's August 23, 201 letter satisfies these requirements. Paragraph 17 of the Complaint alleges the following: "On August 23,2010, plaintiff sent a letter to the Town of Ocean View and in particular, to defend t Conway Gregory, Charley McMullen, an administrative official, Gordon E. Wood, Sr., the mayor, and various members ofthe Town Council." (D.I. 1, ~17). Casale's letter spec'fically 4 stated that "he was contesting the termination of his employment." (Id.). Nothing re was necessary. As Defendant McMullen was Casale's supervisor and explicitly addresse in this letter, Casale complied with the requirement that the grievance be sent to the supervi or. The fact that other individuals are also addressed is of no consequence. The fact that Cas le did not explicitly use the word "grievance" does not alter the obvious intent of the letter to e press dissatisfaction with his termination, which is all that is required by§ 28-45(A). Any equirement that an employee use "magic words" to comply with the administrative complaint pro edure must be considered overly formalistic. Finally, the Town's attorney's failure to treat e letter as a sufficient notice of grievance should not be held against Casale. For these reasons, t e Court holds that Casale properly complied with administrative procedures in contesting his t rmination. Defendants next argue that Casale failed to allege a constitutionally recogniza e property interest as necessary to support his Section 1983 claim for a failure to provid procedural due process. To establish a procedural due process claim, the plaintiff"mu t demonstrate that the conduct complained of was committed by a person acting under s te law and that the conduct deprived him [or her] of rights, privileges or immunities secured b the Constitution." Piecknick v. Pennsylvania, 36 F.3d 1250, 1256 (3d Cir. 1994) (internal otations and citations omitted). Where a plaintiff "claims a procedural due process violation, hi claim is dependent upon the denial of a constitutionally protected property or liberty interest."~ . Further, where "no property or liberty interest is implicated," courts need not reach the ·ssue of qualified immunity in deciding a motion to dismiss. !d. at 1262 n. 12. Here, Casale argues that he had a recognizable property interest in his continued employment with the Town. If Casale did have such a property interest, he cannot be d rived of it without due process. Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 538 (198 ). To 5 have a property interest in continued employment, a person "must have more than a un lateral expectation of it. He must, instead, have a legitimate claim of entitlement to it." Bd. 0 Regents ofState Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577 (1972); see Elmore v. Cleary, 399 F.3d 27 , 282 (3d Cir. 2005). Property interests may be created by state or federal statute, municipal ordi by an express or implied contract. Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 344 (1976). In Delaware, there is a "heavy presumption" that employment, "unless otherwis expressly stated, is at-will in nature with duration indefinite." Bailey v. City ofWilmin ton, 766 A.2d 477, 580 (Del. 2001). Casale's allegations do not rebut this "heavy presumption.' Casale argues that the circumstances of his employment created a constitutional y recognizable interest. (D.I. 8, pp. 11-12). 4 The Complaint refers to Section 28-42 oft Town Code, which provides that employees on workers' compensation may remain absent fr m work, and that while absent, benefits and other leave accrue as though on regular duty. (D.I. , ~ 31(b)). The Complaint also refers to Section 6-1 ofthe Town's employment manual, ich provides for disciplinary procedures, requires the severity of the disciplinary measures related to the seriousness of the offense, and states that dismissal is the removal of an e ployee "for cause," which is defined as including "repeated, unauthorized absence." Casale als alleges that Defendants knew that Casale's absences were not unauthorized. (!d. at ~ 31 (c)). C sale further alleges that Defendants defied the manual's requirement that department superv sors allow a grievance to be identified and offer the employee an opportunity to be heard by a decision maker prior to termination. (!d. at~ 31 (d)). Finally, Casale alleges that he ha a contractual interest in employment and Defendants' actions amount to a breach of this (!d. at~ 34). 4 Although Casale argues in his opposition brief that his property interest is contractual in nature, he also oints to the Town Code to support his claim. The Court will thus analyze both the alleged statutory source as we I as the alleged contract sources to determine whether a property interest existed. 6 It is true that an employment contract may create a constitutionally recognizabl interest sufficient to support a Section 1983 claim. See Bowers v. City of Wilmington, 723 F. S pp. 2d 700, 707 (D. Del. 201 0). Casale fails, however, to allege facts supporting the existenc of a "termination for cause" contract between himself and the Town. An employee is not d prived of a constitutional right when he is removed from a position that was terminable at the wi 1 of his employer. Bishop, 426 U.S. at 348. "[A]n enforceable expectation of continued publi employment ... can exist only if the employer, by statute or contract, has actually gran d some form of guarantee." !d. at 345. An examination of the sources relied upon by Casale reveals that the Town nev r guaranteed him any form of employment protection through code or contract. § 28-42 creates no property expectation in employment: A. Eligibility. All employees shall be eligible for workers' compensation leave hile physically incapacitated because of an on-the-job sickness of injury covered by he Delaware Workmen's Compensation Act. B. Terms. (2) Duration. The employee shall be allowed to remain absent from wor m accordance with Delaware State laws. Section 28-42 does envision that the Town will comply with Delaware workers' compe sation requirements. This, however, did not provide Casale with a general expectation of con ·nued employment, as it does not create a "termination for cause" employment relationship, n r does it confer any property right. It instead refers to a limited Delaware state law exception to he general "at-will" rule that an employee can be fired for any reason. 5 This exception is t at an 5 The fact that laws provide exceptions to the default "at-will" employment relationship does not confer t e employee with an expectation of continued employment, i.e., a protected property interest. 7 employee may not be retaliated or discriminated against for filing a workers' com pens tion claim. Santora v. Red Clay Canso!. Sch. Dist., 2012 WL 5360885, *7 (D. Del. 2012). The allegations here may be sufficient to state a claim for workers' compensation retaliatio , but Town Code § 28-42 does not give rise to a positive general guarantee of continued em loyment. Absent such a guarantee, Casale has not alleged facts rebutting the "heavy presumptio " that his employment was of an "at-will" nature. See Bowers, 723 F. Supp. 2d at 708. He there ore has not established a protected property interest. The Court will next analyze Casale's argument that contract created his employ ent property right. "In the government context, ... employment contracts that contain a 'ju t cause' provision create a property interest in continued employment." Wilson v. MVM, Inc., 4 166, 177 (3d Cir. 2007). Casale alleges that certain statements within his employee m guaranteed that he would not be terminated absent cause. (See D.l. 1, ~ 31(c)). In Del however, an employee manual that does not designate a specific term of employment c ot alter the employee's "at will" employment status. Heideck v. Kent Gen. Hasp., Inc., 44 1095, 1097 (Del. 1982); Biliski v. Red Clay Canso!. Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 2008 WL 399660, *4 (D. Del. 2008). Casale does not allege that the employment manual granted a speci c term of employment, and therefore cannot rely on the manual as altering the "at-will" nature o employment in contract. Casale also argues that his allegations regarding a breach of the implied coven t of good faith and fair dealing may serve as a recognizable contractual property interest deprivat on to support the procedural due process claim. Casale cites Bowers in support. Casale is co ect that Bowers analyzed a claim for the breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair d aling as possibly giving rise to the property right of expected continued employment. 8 Supp. 2d at 709. The Court, however, cannot agree with Bowers in this aspect. Federa law is clear; for an employee to sustain a procedural due process claim, he must establish so e expectation greater than "at-will" employment. 6 Delaware law is also clear; the establi hment of the breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing does nothing to imply a "termination for cause" relationship. See Merrill v. Crothall-Am., Inc., 606 A.2d 96, 1 2 (Del. 1992). It instead has to do with ensuring that the employer complies with a certain mi ·mal good faith baseline in the discipline of its employees. See id at 101. In fact, when the Delaware Supreme Court first expressly recognized the breac of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim in the employment context, it spe t considerable effort justifying this recognition in light of the presumed "at-will" nature f most employment relationships. 7 The Court made clear that the establishment of the claim d es not by itself transform the nature of the relationship from "at-will" to "termination for cause." It instead merely creates a limited exception to an employment relationship that still must be und rstood as essentially "at-will" in nature. For these reasons, Casale cannot support his procedural ue process claim. 8 6 The Supreme Court's following discussion is relevant: "In Board of Regents v. Roth, we recognized th t the nonretention of an untenured college teacher might make him somewhat less attractive to other employer , but nevertheless concluded that it would stretch the concept too far 'to suggest that a person is deprived of li erty when he simply is not rehired in one job but remains as free as before to seek another.' This same conclusion a plies to the discharge of a public employee whose position is terminable at the will ofthe employer when there is no ublic disclosure of the reasons for the discharge." Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 348 (1976)(intemal citations omitted). 7 "Our Jaw provides a heavy presumption that a contract for employment, unless otherwise expressly stat will in nature, with duration indefinite. See Heideck v. Kent General Hospital, Inc., Dei.Supr., 446 A.2d (1982). Just as this presumption protects employers from being liable on the employment contract for a beyond which future events dictate termination, the covenant of good faith, in this context, protects empl receiving under the contract Jess than what was bargained for." !d. at 102. 8 d, is at095, I 096 eriod yees from This does not preclude Casale from establishing an independent breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim. 9 The Court thus grants Defendants' motion to dismiss Casale's Section 1983 clam for a failure to provide procedural due process. The Court also holds that amendment of thi claim would be futile. Indeed, Casale attached a proposed amended pleading to his oppositio brief (D.I. 8-1), and his revised allegations do not change the result. In light of the recogniti n that the federal question claim is not viable, the Court declines to reach Defendants' motion to ismiss the state law claims for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing, beach of contract, and wrongful termination. Instead, the Court, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367(c (3), will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state law claims. The statute pro ides that "[t]he district court may decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over a claim" if" he district court has dismissed all claims over which it has original jurisdiction." 28 U.S.C § 1367(c)(3). This is a decision that is left to the discretion ofthis Court. Annulli v. Pan kkar, 200 F.3d 189, 202 (3d Cir. 1999). The focus of this discretion is on whether the dismissal fthe pendent claims best serves the principles of judicial economy, convenience, fairness, a d comity. !d. These factors favor dismissal. The case is in its early stages as the parties have ot yet engaged in discovery, and thus little judicial economy or convenience will be lost by re uiring Casale to pursue his remaining claims in state court. There is no fairness concern, as C sale and his lawyers "knowingly risked dismissal of his pendent claims when they filed suit in fi deral district court and invoked the Court's discretionary supplemental jurisdiction power." d. Finally, comity favors dismissal, as the state court is best positioned to consider purely tate law claims. For these reasons, the Court dismisses the remaining state law claims. An order will issue. 10