McLaine v. Lackawanna County et al
MEMORANDUM OPINION - For the foregoing reasons, the court will deny Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiffs Amended Complaint. (Doc. 15). A separate Order follows.Signed by Honorable Robert D. Mariani on 7/3/14. (jfg)
THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT
FOR THE MIDDLE DISTRICT OF PENNSYLVANIA
LACKAWANNA COUNTY, et al.
I. Procedural History
On May 20, 2013, Plaintiff, James McLaine, filed a Complaint in the above-captioned
matter (Doc. 1), and subsequently filed an Amended Complaint on August 12, 2013,
alleging two violations of Plaintiffs rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (First Am. Complaint,
Doc. 12). Defendants, Lackawanna County, Corey O'Brien, and Jim Wansacz, moved to
dismiss the Amended Complaint. (Defs.' Motion to Dismiss, Doc. 15). The parties have
fully briefed the motion, and it is ripe for decision. For the reasons set forth below, the Court
will deny Defendant's motion.
II. Factual Allegations
Plaintiffs Complaint alleges the following facts.
In 2008, McLaine was appOinted as Deputy Director of Purchasing for Lackawanna
County. (Doc. 12, 1f 11). At this time, Mike Washo, AJ. Munchak, and Corey O'Brien were
the Lackawanna County Commissioners. (Id.). In 2011, Patrick O'Malley and Jim Wansacz
were elected, replacing Washo and Munchak. (Id. at ~ 12). After the election, "Wansacz
and O'Brien announced that their hiring decisions for employment by Defendant
Lackawanna County would be based upon political 'contacts and connections.'" (ld. at ~
On January 19, 2012, Wansacz and O'Brien sent a letter to McLaine notifying him
that he would need to apply for retention of his position as Deputy Director of Purchasing.
(Doc. 12, ~ 18). McLaine did so, and was notified by Wansacz and O'Brien on March 30,
2012, that he would not be retained and that his employment was terminated. (ld. at W19
David Pettinato, "a political supporter of Defendants Wansacz and O'Brien", and
brother-in-law of Mario Costa, "a long-time political affiliate of' Wansacz, was given
McLaine's vacated position. (Doc. 12, 1Mf 21-24). Between August, 2011 and September,
2012, Costa donated $1,750 to the political campaign of Wansacz and O'Brien, including
$500 in September, 2012, after Pettinato replaced McLaine. (ld. at 1Mf 25-28). Pettinato
contributed $75 to the political campaign of Wansacz and O'Brien, prior to his appointment
as Deputy Director of Purchasing, and another $250 after he replaced McLaine. (ld. at W
29-30). McLaine also contributed money, including $325 to the Friends of Wansacz and
O'Brien between September, 2011 and January, 2012. (ld. at 1Mf 31-32).
Plaintiff alleges that he was "better qualified for the position of Deputy Director of
Purchasing ... than Mr. Pettinato" and was terminated "on account of [his] comparative lack
of political affiliation with" Wansacz and O'Brien and Pettinato's affiliation with these
Defendants. (Doc. 12, W38-39). Plaintiff is now suing Wansacz and O'Brien (Count I) and
, Lackawanna County (Count II), under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that, in terminating
McLaine, Defendants violated Plaintiffs First Amendment right to forbear from politically
supporting candidates for public office (Doc. 12, 1f1f 44-48).
III. Standard of Review
A complaint must be dismissed under FED. R. CIV. P. 12(b)(6), if it does not allege
"enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell At!. Corp. v.
Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570,127 S. Ct. 1955, 167 L. Ed. 2d 929 (2007). The plaintiff must
aver "factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the
defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 129 S. Ct.
1937,1949,173 L. Ed. 2d 868 (2009).
"Though a complaint 'does not need detailed factual allegations, ... a formulaic
recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.'" DelRio-Mocci v. Connolly Prop.
Inc., 672 F.3d 241, 245 (3d Cir. 2012) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In other words,
"[ijactual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative leveL"
Covington v. Int'l Ass'n of Approved Basketball Officials, 710 F.3d 114, 118 (3d Cir. 2013)
(internal citations and quotation marks omitted). A court "take[s] as true all the factual
allegations in the Complaint and the reasonable inferences that can be drawn from those
facts, but ... disregard[s] legal conclusions and threadbare recitals of the elements of a
cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements." Ethypharm S.A. France v.
Abbott Laboratories, 707 F.3d 223, 231, n.14 (3d Cir. 2013) (internal citations and quotation
Twombly and Iqbal require [a district court] to take the following three steps to
determine the sufficiency of a complaint: First, the court must take note of the
elements a plaintiff must plead to state a claim. Second, the court should
identify allegations that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not
entitled to the assumption of truth. Finally, where there are well-pleaded
factual allegations, a court should assume their veracity and then determine
whether they plausibly give rise to an entitlement for relief.
Connelly V. Steel Valley Sch. Dist., 706 F.3d 209, 212 (3d Cir. 2013).
"[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere
possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged - but it has not show[n] - that the
pleader is entitled to relief." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (internal citations and quotation marks
omitted). This "plausibility" determination will be a "context-speci'fic task that requires the
reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id.
To establish a prima facie case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must demonstrate
that: (1) he was deprived of a federal right; and (2) the person who deprived him of that right
acted under color of state law. Burrella
City of Philadelphia, 501 F.3d 134, 139 (3d Cir.
2007). Section 1983 is not an independent source of substantive rights, but merely
"provides a remedy for deprivations of rights established elsewhere in the Constitution or
federal laws." Kopec V. Tate, 361 F.3d 772, 775-76 (3d Cir. 2004). In evaluating a §
1983 claim, a Court must first "identify the exact contours of the underlying right said to
have been violated" and determine "whether the plaintiff has alleged a deprivation of a
constitutional right at all." Nicini v. Morra, 212 F.3d 798, 806 (3d Cir. 2000) (citing Cnty. of
Sacramento v. Lewis, 523 U.S. 833,841 n. 5,118 S.Ct. 1708, 140 L. Ed. 1043 (1998)). As
applied in a case such as the one currently before this Court, the First Amendment right to
freedom of association, "plainly presupposes a freedom not to associate", and may be
"unconstitutionally infringe[d] upon" by certain Government actions. Roberts v. U.S.
Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 622-823,104 S.Ct. 3244, 82 L.Ed.2d 462 (1984). See also Bennis
v. Gable, 823 F.2d 723, 732 (3d Cir. 1987) ("A citizen's right not to support a candidate is
every bit as protected as his right to support one.").
A. Count 1- Defendants O'Brien and Wansacz
Defendants first argue that O'Brien and Wansacz are entitled to qualified immunity,
and, as such, the Complaint must be dismissed. (Defs.' Brief in Supp. of Motion to Dismiss,
Doc. 16, at 5-7).
Qualified immunity shields government ofncials from civil damages liability
unless the official violated a statutory or constitutional right that was clearly
established at the time of the challenged conduct. . .. [C]ourts may grant
qualified immunity on the ground that a purported right was not clearly
established by prior case law, without resolving the often more difficult
question whether the purported right exists at all. . .. To be clearly
established, a right must be sufficiently clear that every reasonable official
would [have understood] that what he is doing violates that right. . .. In other
words, existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional
question beyond debate. This "clearly established" standard protects the
balance between vindication of constitutional rights and government officials'
effective performance of their duties by ensuring that officials can reasonably
... anticipate when their conduct may give rise to liability for damages.
Reichle v. Howards, --- U.S. ---,132 S.Ct. 2088, 2093,182 L.Ed.2d 985 (2012) (internal
Given the requisite elements that must be met in order to establish qualified
immunity, Defendants contend that (1) "Plaintiffs associational right of non-affiliation was
not violated, because Plaintiff did in fact associate with Messrs. O'Brien and Wansacz by
making campaign contributions to their concerted political committee..." (Doc. 16, at 8);
and (2) "the constitutional prohibition of terminating a political supporter from public
employment cannot be said to be 'apparent' or 'beyond debate'" and is therefore not "clearly
established" (ld. at 10). We disagree with both contentions.
To determine whether Plaintiff has shown a prima facie case of political
discrimination, he must demonstrate that:
(1) [he] was employed at a public agency in a position that does not require
political affiliation, (2) [he] was engaged in constitutionally protected conduct,
and (3) this conduct was a substantial or motivating factor in the government's
Galli v. New Jersey Meadowlands Comm'n, 490 F.3d 265, 271 (3d Cir. 2007). Defendants'
argument that they are entitled to qualified immunity because McLaine associated with
O'Brien and Wansacz, and therefore Plaintiffs First Amendment right of association was not
violated, is premature. While we recognize that McLaine donated a combined total of $325
to the Friends of Wansacz and O'Brien, and Pettinato ultimately only donated the same
amount, (Doc. 12, ~~ 29-32), in light of Plaintiffs well-pleaded facts that, between August,
2011, and September, 2012, Costa, Pettinato's brother-in-law and a "long-time political
affiliate" of Wansacz, donated $1,750 to the political campaign of Wansacz and O'Brien (Id.
at mr 23-28), and that Pettinato "was a political supporter" of Wansacz and O'Brien (Id. at ~
22), Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to support a claim that he was both potentially
engaged in constitutionally protected activity and that this conduct was a motivating factor in
Defendants' determination to not retain him. Whether McLaine's donations to the Friends of
Wansacz and O'Brien can be considered "de minimus" as Plaintiff contends (Doc. 12, ~ 33),
thereby precluding an argument that he was affiliated with Defendants, is a question of fact
that cannot be determined at this time. Plaintiffs allegations may also be reasonably
construed to recognize a cause of action that Plaintiff, who "did not have political 'contacts
and connections' with Defendants Wansacz and O'Brien and was not politically affiliated
with them," (Doc. 12, ~ 15), gave the "de minimus" contributions to Defendants' golf
tournament and inauguration (Id. at ~ 33), not in support of their candidacy, but rather due
to Defendants Wansacz and O'Brien's announcement that their hiring decisions would be
based on political "contacts and connections" (Id. at ~ 13). Further, even if McLaine did give
money in support of the defendants, he may still have a cause of action where his continued
retention depended on whether there was another person who was a larger and more
connected supporter. All of these issues are appropriate matters for discovery and may not
be resolved on a motion to dismiss.
Defendants' second argument is equally unconvincing. They are correct that
Anderson recognizes that "this 'clearly established' inquiry must be undertaken in light of the
specific context of the case, not a broad general position." (Doc. 16, at 10, citing Anderson
Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 639-640, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987)). However,
Defendants' statement that they are entitled to qualified immunity because "the
constitutional prohibition of terminating a political supporter from public employment cannot
be said to be 'apparent' or 'beyond debate'" (Doc. 16, at 10), ignores the Supreme Court's
assertion that while
the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official
would understand that what he is dOing violates that right [, t]his is not to say
that an official action is protected by qualified immunity unless the very action
in question has previously been held unlawful, ... but it is to say that in the
light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.
Anderson, 483 U.S.at 640. Further, Defendants concede the correctness of Plaintiffs
statement, which relies on Supreme Court and Third Circuit cases dating back to 1976, that
"it is a clearly established right that [an] employee cannot be terminated based on affiliation
or lack thereof." (PI.'s Brief in Opp. to Defs. Motion to Dismiss; Doc. 18, at 12; Defs.' Reply
Brief, Doc. 19, at 7). However, Defendants argue that this is simply "a correct general
statement of the law [but] provides no guidance in the resolution of this matter." (Doc. 19, at
7). This argument, in conjunction with Defendants' supporting statement, that "Messrs.
O'Brien and Wansacis research reveals no factually similar precedent supporting such a
proposition [that the constitutional prohibition of terminating a political supporter from public
employment is clearly established]/' is insufficient to establish that the pre-existing law has
not made the unlawfulness of Defendants' conduct "apparent".
Consequently, Defendants' motion to dismiss Count I on the grounds of Qualified
Immunity is denied.
B. Count 11- Defendant Lackawanna County
Section 1983 liability may not be imposed solely on a respondeat superior theory.
Monell v. Oep1 of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 691, 98 S.Ct. 2018, 56 L. Ed. 2d 611 (1978).
"Instead, it is when execution of a government's policy or custom, whether made by its
lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy!
inflicts the injury that the government as an entity is responsible under § 1983. Id. at 694.
"In addition to proving that an unlawful policy or custom existed, a plaintiff also bears the
burden of proving that such a policy or custom was the proximate cause of the injuries
suffered." Watson v. Abington Twp., 478 F.3d 144, 156 (3d Cir. 2007).
Defendants' motion to dismiss Count II - a § 1983 claim against Lackawanna County
brought pursuant to Monell- is even more easily denied than Count I. Defendants only ask
the Court to dismiss this Count in a footnote, explaining that "[a] municipality may not incur
Monell liability as a result of the actions of its officers when its officers have inflicted no
constitutional injury.... Accordingly, because there has been no constitutional violation
Plaintiffs First Amendment freedom of association claim fails as against the County." (Doc.
16, at 9 nA). Defendants re-iterate this argument verbatim in their Reply brief, without any
additional support or elaboration. (See generally, Doc. 29). Given that the Court has found
that Plaintiff sufficiently pleaded facts to survive a motion to dismiss Count I, and therefore
his First Amendment claim, we cannot dismiss Count lion the grounds suggested by
Additionally, viewing the alleged facts in the light most favorable to the McLaine,
Plaintiff has alleged sufficient facts to show the presence of a policy, rule, regulation, or
custom so that liability under Monell would follow. Specifically, Plaintiff contends that upon
Wansacz and O'Brien's election, they "announced that their hiring decisions for employment
by Defendant Lackawanna County would be based upon political 'contacts and
connections.'" (Doc. 12, 1f 13). While this claim lacks any specific factual support, Plaintiff
has nonetheless "nudged [his] claims across the line from conceivable to plausible,"
Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, to warrant a denial of Defendants' motion to dismiss Count II.
For the foregoing reasons, the court will deny Defendant's Motion to Dismiss
Plaintiffs Amended Complaint. (Doc. 15). A separate Order follows.
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