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Warner v. Township of South Harrison

July 26, 2010

MATTHEW WARNER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
TOWNSHIP OF SOUTH HARRISON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Jerome B. Simandle District Judge

OPINION

Plaintiff Matthew Warner has brought suit in response to accusations and an investigation initiated by South Harrison Township officials into Plaintiff's allegedly inappropriate access of the Township's computer systems. He seeks to pursue claims under Section 7 of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his constitutional rights to freedom of association, privacy, and due process, as well as claims under the New Jersey Constitution. Presently before the Court are motions to dismiss brought by Defendants Township of South Harrison, Colleen Bianco, Gary Spinner, James McCall, and Warren Mabey [Docket Item 3], Defendant Jeannine Campbell*fn1 [Docket Item 8], and Plaintiff's cross-motion for leave to amend his complaint [Docket Item 11]. For the reasons expressed below, the Court will grant Defendants' motions to dismiss, but also grant in part and deny in part Plaintiff's motion for leave to amend his complaint. Plaintiff may continue to pursue his privacy and procedural due process claims under both the federal and state constitutions.

I. BACKGROUND

A. Facts*fn2

Plaintiff is a resident of South Harrison Township, New Jersey ("the Township"), where until 2009 he served as a member of the Township's Planning and Zoning Board ("the Board"). (Am. Compl. ¶ 3.) Plaintiff is a Democrat and was, at the time of these events, affiliated with Charles Tyson and Bob Campbell, the Mayor and Deputy Mayor of South Harrison. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 13.) The Township has a Non-Executive Committee ("the Committee") form of government with five elected committeemen, who then appoint the Mayor and Deputy Mayor. (Id. ¶ 14.) Members of the Planning and Zoning Board are nominated by the Mayor and approved by vote of the Committee. (Id. ¶ 11.) Generally, members of the Board are asked to renew their terms. (Id. ¶ 12.) In October 2007 John Coleman, as Democratic campaign manager, considered having Plaintiff campaign for a position on the Committee. (Id. ¶ 15.)

In addition to Plaintiff's service on the Board, Plaintiff is a computer professional. (Id. ¶ 10.) In April 2008, the Committee authorized Plaintiff to review the Township's information technology system, including their data storage, hardware, software, and disaster recovery requirements. (Id. ¶¶ 16-17.) At some point thereafter, Defendant Colleen Bianco, the Township Administrator, accused Plaintiff of inappropriately accessing the Township's computer system in e-mails she sent to Committee members, township staff, and Township police officers. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 19.) She later erased evidence of these e-mails from her computer. (Id.) In response, the Township Police Department, under the direction of Defendant Police Chief Warren Mabey, began an investigation of Plaintiff, during which the County Prosecutors' Office, the New Jersey State Police, and the Federal Bureau of Investigations interrogated Plaintiff for approximately eight hours. (Id. ¶¶ 19-21.)

These allegations were eventually made public. On July 20, 2008, the Township informed Township residents and the press that a member of the Board had "hacked" into the Township's computer system and that it was appointing a panel to investigate the matter, even though the Township had authorized Plaintiff to access the computer system. (Id. ¶ 22.) The investigatory committee, without true subpoena power, subpoenaed Plaintiff's testimony and the report from the state police regarding Plaintiff's initial interrogation. (Id. ¶¶ 24, 26-27.) The Township informed the media that a second panel would also probe the "hacking." (Id. ¶ 25.) Defendant Mabey facilitated the delivery of the state police report, without redacting any information, to the Committee. (Id. ¶ 28.) The police report indicated that Plaintiff had done nothing wrong, yet the investigative committee issued a report finding Plaintiff guilty of wrongdoing. (Id. ¶ 29.) The Township publically disseminated the report, along with police reports that contained Plaintiff's name, driver's license number, date of birth, address, telephone number, and social security number. (Id. ¶¶ 32-25.) Defendants Jeannine Campbell, an agent of the Committee, and Bianco helped to disseminate these reports, while Defendants Gary Spinner and James McCall, both Committee members, read the report in public. (Id. ¶¶ 5, 34-35.) Spinner and McCall are both Republicans. (Id. ¶¶ 7-8.) Campbell retains a copy of the report and continues to share it with members of the public, while Robert Diaz, a Township council person, continues to share the report and police reports with the public. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37.)

After Defendants published the investigative police report, Plaintiff was asked not to renew his term on the Planning and Zoning Board. (Id. ¶ 38.) The public dissemination of the investigative police report "has resulted in damage to [Plaintiff's] name and reputation, and has caused Plaintiff to experience hardship and difficulty in maintaining employment." (Id. ¶ 39.)

B. Procedural History

On December 2, 2009, Plaintiff brought suit against Defendants seeking relief under Section 7 of the Privacy Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552a, and under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his constitutional rights to freedom of association, privacy, and due process, as well as claims under the New Jersey Constitution. Shortly thereafter, all Defendants moved to dismiss, with Defendant Campbell filing a separate motion. In response, Plaintiff submitted an opposition where he objected to the dismissal of his Privacy Act claims and then argued that he should be granted leave to amend his complaint to include allegations to support his other constitutional claims. On that same day Plaintiff submitted a motion to amend his complaint, which included a proposed amended complaint. Briefing is now complete as to all motions.

II. DISCUSSION

A. Motion to Dismiss

As noted above, Plaintiff essentially does not oppose much of Defendants' motions to dismiss, instead seeking leave to amend his complaint to include facts supporting his federal and state constitutional claims. Further, there are few facts in Plaintiff's initial complaint to support these constitutional claims. The Court will grant Defendants' motions to dismiss these unsupported constitutional claims as alleged in Plaintiff's initial complaint without further discussion. Therefore, the Court will address only Plaintiff's Privacy Act claims on this motion to dismiss and then turn to his proposed amended complaint to determine the sufficiency of his constitutional allegations.

1. Standard of Review

In deciding the Defendants' motions to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must "accept all factual allegations as true, construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, and determine whether, under any reasonable reading of the complaint, the plaintiff may be entitled to relief." Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 231 (3d Cir. 2008) (quoting Pinker v. Roche Holdings Ltd., 292 F.3d 361, 374 n.7 (3d Cir. 2002)). Thus, "to 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.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ---U.S. ---, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009); Fowler v. UPMC Shadyside, 578 F.3d 203, 210 (3d Cir. 2009).

"While a complaint attacked by a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss does not need detailed factual allegations, a plaintiff's obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)).

Therefore, after Iqbal, when presented with a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, district courts should conduct a two-part analysis. First, the factual and legal elements of a claim should be separated. The District Court must accept all of the complaint's well-pleaded facts as true, but may disregard any legal conclusions. [Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950.] Second, a District Court must then determine whether the facts alleged in the complaint are sufficient to show that the plaintiff has a "plausible claim for relief." Id. [] In other words, a complaint must do more ...


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