Rodriguez v. City of Doral et al
ORDER granting in part and denying in part 19 Motion to Dismiss Signed by Judge Marcia G. Cooke on 10/16/2012. (tm)
UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
SOUTHERN DISTRICT OF FLORIDA
Case No. 12-20700-Civ-COOKE/TURNOFF
CITY OF DORAL, et al.,
ORDER GRANTING IN PART DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS
THIS CASE is before me upon Defendant Juan Carlos Bermudez’s Motion to
Dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint. (ECF No. 19). I have reviewed the arguments, the record,
and the relevant legal authorities. For the reasons explained in this Order, the Motion is
granted in part and denied in part.
The following facts are taken from the Plaintiff Anthony Rodriguez’s Amended
Defendant City of Doral’s Police Department (the “Department”) hired
Rodriguez in January 2008, as a police detective. Rodriguez claims that, at all times, his
job performance met or exceeded the Department’s expectations. However, on around
January 29, 2009, a Department representative told Rodriguez he was terminated. When
Rodriguez requested an explanation, a Department representative told him that the police
chief had no obligation to give him one.
After Rodriguez’s termination, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement
(“FDLE”) launched an investigation in response to allegations of the chief of police’s and
other City of Doral high ranking officials’ misconduct. Rodriguez alleges that the FDLE
investigation revealed that two internal probes that the Doral Police Department had
launched targeting Rodriguez were politically motivated.
alleges that the FDLE ultimately concluded that Defendant Mayor Juan Carlos Bermudez
was responsible for Rodriguez’s termination, and he targeted Rodriguez because of
Rodriguez’s relationship with Councilwoman Sandra Ruiz, one of Bermudez’s political
Rodriguez brings this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He alleges the City of
Doral and Bermudez violated his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights when they
terminated his employment because of his political association. Count I is directed
against the City of Doral. Count II is directed against Bermudez in his individual
Bermudez moves to dismiss Count II of the Amended Complaint on the grounds
that he is shielded by the doctrine of qualified immunity and the complaint’s allegations
are conclusory and fail to state a claim against him.
Bermudez also argues that
Rodriguez fails to state sufficient facts to support a request for punitive damages.
II. LEGAL STANDARDS
“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). “[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state
a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.’” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678
(2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). The standard of
facial plausibility is met “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to
The portions of the FDLE report that Rodriguez cites in his Amended Complaint appear to be
missing from the excerpted report he attached to the complaint.
draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.
at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). A court’s consideration when ruling on a
motion to dismiss is limited to the complaint and any incorporated exhibits.
Grossman v. Nationsbank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000).
A complaint may be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil
Procedure “when its allegations, on their face, show that an affirmative defense bars
recovery on the claim.” Cottone v. Jenne, 326 F.3d 1352, 1357 (11th Cir. 2003). Thus,
“unless the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a
defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement
of discovery.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). “Absent such allegations, it is
appropriate for a district court to grant the defense of qualified immunity at the motion to
dismiss stage.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).
A. Qualified Immunity
Qualified immunity protects government officials sued in their individual
capacities for performing discretionary functions, “as long as their conduct violates no
clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would
have known.” Storck v. City of Coral Springs, 354 F.3d 1307, 1314 (11th Cir. 2003)
(internal quotation marks omitted). “[T]he public official must first prove that he was
acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly unconstitutional
acts took place.” Id. After he or she does so, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to establish
that the official is not entitled to qualified immunity. Id.
The Supreme Court has established a two-step inquiry to determine whether
qualified immunity applies.
First, a court must determine whether the plaintiff’s
allegations of fact, if true, establish a constitutional violation. See Saucier v. Katz, 533
U.S. 194, 201 (2001). Second, a court must determine whether the constitutional right
was “clearly established” at the time. Id. “‘Clearly established law’ is law that is
sufficiently established so as to provide public officials with ‘fair notice’ that the conduct
alleged is prohibited.” Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 715 (11th Cir. 2010) (quoting
Hope v. Pelzer, 536 U.S. 730, 739 (2002)). This does not mean, however, “that an
official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action in question has
previously been held unlawful.” Hope, 536 U.S. at 739. Rather, a court must consider
whether “in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness [is] apparent.” Id.
Neither party disputes that Bermudez was performing a discretionary function
when he decided to terminate Rodriguez’s employment. I will therefore turn to the
questions of whether a mayor’s decision to fire a police officer for his political
association violates the officer’s First and Fourteenth Amendments and whether this
constitutional right was clearly established at the time of Rodriguez’s termination.
In political patronage2 cases, the Supreme Court has balanced the strong
constitutional tradition of protecting an individual’s freedom of association and belief
against the “need to insure effective government and the efficiency of public employees.”
Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 356-57, 364 (1976), see also Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S.
507, 513-18 (1980). In Elrod, the Supreme Court held patronage dismissals should be
limited to “policymaking positions.”
427 U.S. at 367.
The Court reasoned that
Under the patronage practice, “public employees hold their jobs on the condition that they
provide, in some acceptable manner, support for the favored political party.” Elrod v. Burns, 427
U.S. 347, 359 (1976).
“[n]onpolicymaking individuals usually have only limited responsibility and are therefore
not in a position to thwart the goals of the in-party.” Id. The Court acknowledged that
there is no “clear line” between policymaking and nonpolicymaking positions, and
suggested that the distinction would lie in the nature of the employee’s responsibilities.
Id. at 367-68.
Several years after Elrod, the Supreme Court again faced the issue of patronage
dismissals in Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980). There, the Court refined the standard
in Elrod, holding that “the ultimate inquiry is not whether the label ‘policymaker’ or
‘confidential’ fits a particular position; rather the question is whether the hiring authority
can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective
performance of the public office involved.” Id. at 518.
In Terry v. Cooke, 866 F.2d 373 (11th Cir. 1989), the Eleventh Circuit applied the
Elrod-Branti standard in the area of law enforcement. There, the court considered the
constitutionality of a newly elected sheriff’s decision to refuse to reappoint or rehire all
deputy sheriffs, clerks, investigators, dispatchers, jailers, and process servers, who
worked under his predecessor.
The court concluded that, given the “closeness and
cooperation required between sheriffs and their deputies,” deputy sheriffs were
susceptible to patronage dismissals. Id. at 377. In contrast, the court remanded the case
back to the district court to consider whether “loyalty to an individual sheriff is an
appropriate requirement for effective job performance for the remaining positions of
clerk, investigator, dispatcher, jailer, and process server.” Id. at 377-78. The court stated
that the district court’s determination would depend on “the actual responsibilities of each
position and the relationship of each to the sheriff.” Id. at 378. The court suggested that
patronage dismissals would not be constitutionally acceptable for those in positions that
“traditionally revolve around limited objectives and defined duties and do not require
those holding them to function as the alter ego of the sheriff or ensure that the policies
and goals of the office are implemented.” Id.
Thereafter, in Cutcliffe v. Cochran, 117 F.3d 1353 (11th Cir. 1997), the Eleventh
Circuit again applied the Elrod-Branti standard. Recognizing the Terry court’s more
narrow holding that deputy sheriffs are subject to patronage dismissals, the court upheld
the district court’s summary judgment against plaintiffs, former deputy sheriffs, and in
favor of the Sherriff of Broward County. Id. at 1358. In reaching its decision, the court
reluctantly noted it was bound by Terry, a prior panel decision, because Cutcliffe also
involved deputy sherrifs. Id. The court, however, suggested that, ordinarily, “plaintiffs
may be entitled to a factual determination under Branti as to whether their positions
implicate partisan political concerns in their effective functioning.” Id.
It is Rodriguez’s burden to show Bermudez is not entitled to qualified immunity.
A review of the applicable case law reveals that, to state a claim for violations of his First
and Fourteenth Amendment rights based on a patronage dismissal, Rodriguez must plead
facts to show that his position is not one in which party affiliation is an appropriate
requirement for the effective performance of the job.
Rodriguez has not done so.
Ordinarily, the failure to establish the existence of a constitutional violation is sufficient
reason to grant a motion to dismiss on qualified immunity grounds. However, here the
failure appears to be one of poor draftsmanship—Rodriguez did not set forth any facts
regarding the nature of his position or his job responsibilities.3 I decline to dismiss Count
II without giving Rodriguez an opportunity to amend his pleading.
B. Punitive Damages
Punitive damages are appropriate in § 1983 cases “where a defendant’s conduct is
motivated by evil intent or involves callous or reckless indifference to federally protected
rights.” H.C. by Hewett v. Jarrard, 786 F.2d 1080, 1089 (11th Cir. 1986) (citing Smith v.
Wade, 461 U.S. 30, 56 (1983)). Having reviewed the Amended Complaint, I agree with
Bermudez that Rodriguez fails to state any facts to support his single conclusory
allegation that Bermudez “acted with reckless and deliberate indifference to Rodriguez’s
constitutional rights, or subjected Rodriguez to such deprivations willfully, intentionally,
maliciously, and with reckless disregard to Rodriguez’s rights.” I will, however, allow
Rodriguez to amend his complaint to allege sufficient facts to support the demand for
For the reasons provided, it is ORDERED and ADJUDGED that Defendant
Juan Carlos Bermudez’s Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff’s Complaint (ECF No. 19) is
GRANTED in part and DENIED in part. Count II of Plaintiff’s Complaint and
Plaintiff’s demand for punitive damages are DISMISSED without prejudice. Plaintiff
shall file an amended complaint within fourteen days of the date of this Order.
Because Rodriguez’s Amended Complaint is devoid of any facts regarding his responsibilities,
this Court is also unable to determine conclusively whether his right to be free from patronage
dismissal was clearly established at the time of his termination. See Kolman v. Sheahan, 31 F.3d
429, 434 (7th Cir. 1994) (“But even a qualified immunity inquiry cannot take place until the facts
about the [plantiffs’ positions at a public agency] and the plaintiffs’ roles there are put on the
table.”); cf. Dandino v. Tieri, 878 F. Supp. 129, 133 (N.D. Ill. 1994) (declining to dismiss
patronage dismissal case without a developed factual record).
DONE and ORDERED in chambers at Miami, Florida, this 16th day of October
William C. Turnoff, U.S. Magistrate Judge
Attorneys of record