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Anthony S. Morelli v. County of Hudson

March 7, 2011

ANTHONY S. MORELLI, PLAINTIFF,
v.
COUNTY OF HUDSON, ET AL., DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Linares, District Judge.

NOT FOR PUBLICATION

This matter comes before the Court by way of a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's Complaint, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), filed by Defendant Thomas McCann. This motion is returnable today, March 7, 2011. The Court has considered the submissions made in support of and in opposition to the instant motion. No oral argument was heard. Fed. R. Civ. P. 78. Based on the reasons that follow, Defendant's motion is granted. Plaintiff is granted thirty (30) days in which to file an Amended Complaint which cures the pleading deficiencies in those claims discussed below.

OPINION

BACKGROUND

The relevant facts are as follows. Plaintiff is a truck driver employed by Hudson County. (Compl., ¶ 6). Plaintiff has been employed by Hudson for several years. (Id.). Throughout the course of his employment, Plaintiff made several complaints of occupational health and safety violations by Defendant. (Id., ¶ 7). For instance, Plaintiff made several complaints to management of inferior and/or broken equipment. (Id., ¶ 9). Plaintiff also complained about a man caught illegally dumping oil. (Id., ¶ 9). Plaintiff also complained to Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise of the use of government equipment by management officials for personal financial gain. (Id., ¶ 9). Plaintiff also complained of a variety of fire safety issues. (Id., ¶ 9). Such complaints were investigated by state agency officials and determined to be true violations. (Id., ¶ 7).

Prior to making such complaints, Plaintiff enjoyed a clean record at work. (Id., ¶ 8). After he made such complaints, Plaintiff was subjected to harassment, a hostile work environment and a series of "reprisals and retaliatory actions by management and their support staff." (Id., ¶ 10). For instance, Plaintiff was disciplined for not attending a meeting in which he requested a union representative to be present. (Id., ¶ 10). Defendant's management went so far as soliciting the intervention of co-workers to file complaints against Plaintiff in order to "place Plaintiff in a negative light, discipline Plaintiff on frivolous charges, as well as single Plaintiff out." (Id., ¶ 11). On another occasion, after Plaintiff notified Defendant of his intent to run for political office in Jersey City, he was approach by certain employees and advised that it would not be good for his career if he ran for political office. (Id., ¶ 12). Plaintiff had also asked to be transferred from the Parks Department several times -- at one point even asking for an "emergency transfer" -- but was denied such requests by Defendant Thomas McCann. (Id., ¶ 10). Defendant McCann oversees the Parks Department for Defendant Hudson County.(Id., ¶ 15). He was aware of Plaintiff's protected communications and "sanctioned, directed, and proposed actions to reprise and retaliate against Plaintiff." (Id., ¶ 15). In particular, Defendant McCann "personally directed the destruction of Plaintiff's career and livelihood because of making protected communications and exercising his right to freedom of speech." (Id., ¶ 15). Plaintiff was ultimately terminated from his employment with the County of Hudson. (Id., ¶ 34).

In light of the foregoing, Plaintiff brings the following three claims against Defendant McCann: (1) deprivation of his first and fourteenth amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, (2) violation of the Conscientious Employee Protection Act, N.J.S.A. 34:19-1, et seq., and (3) a state law claim of breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. Defendant McCann has filed a motion to dismiss each of these claims for failure to comply with the pleading requirements of Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a).

LEGAL STANDARD

For a complaint to survive dismissal, it "must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.' " Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (citing Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). In determining the sufficiency of a pro se complaint, the Court must be mindful to construe it liberally in favor of the plaintiff. See Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93-94 (2007). The Court must accept all well-pleaded factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. See Phillips v. County of Allegheny, 515 F.3d 224, 234 (3d Cir. 2008). The Court need not, however, credit a pro se plaintiff's "bald assertions" or "legal conclusions." Morse v. Lower Merion Sch. Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 906 (3d Cir.1997). Additionally, in evaluating a plaintiff's claims, generally "a court looks only to the facts alleged in the complaint and its attachments without reference to other parts of the record." Jordan v. Fox, Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel, 20 F.3d 1250, 1261 (3d Cir. 1994). With this framework in mind, the Court tuns now to Defendant's motion.

DISCUSSION

1. Section 1983 Claims

To establish section 1983 liability, a plaintiff must show "that the official acting under color of state law caused the deprivation of a federal right." Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991) (quoting Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 166 (1985)). This is because section 1983 itself is not a source of substantive rights, but provides a vehicle for vindicating the violation of rights created by the United States Constitution or federal law. See Graham v. Connor, 490 U.S. 386, 393-94 (1989); Morse v. Lower Merion School Dist., 132 F.3d 902, 907 (3d Cir. 1997). Plaintiff attempts to assert a section 1983 claim as against Defendant McCann based upon the alleged deprivation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Rule 8(a)(2) "requires only 'a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to 'give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests,' " Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quotations omitted). The Court agrees that Plaintiff's section 1983 claim, as pled, fails to meet this standard.

As a preliminary matter, although Plaintiff's section 1983 claim is brought based upon a deprivation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights, Plaintiff's Complaint does not specify the basis of the Fourteenth Amendment claim and fails to contain any facts in support of such claim. For instance, it is unclear whether Plaintiff seeks to assert, inter alia, a violation of his substantive due process rights or his procedural due process rights. Therefore, Defendant McCann has not received fair notice of the basis of this Fourteenth Amendment claim and/or the grounds upon which it rests. See generally Phillips, 515 F.3d at 233. Thus, to the extent Plaintiff seeks to assert a section 1983 claim based upon the deprivation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights as against Defendant McCann, this claim fails to meet the Rule 8(a) pleading requirements and is therefore dismissed without prejudice.

Similarly, to the extent Plaintiff's 1983 claim is based upon a deprivation of his First Amendment rights, Plaintiff has failed to interject sufficient facts to raise his right to relief above the speculative level. To state a claim for a violation of First Amendment rights under 1983, Plaintiff must allege that he engaged in "protected First Amendment activity" and that this activity "was a substantial factor" motivating Defendant McCann's alleged retaliation against him. See, e.g., Springer v. Henry, 435 F.3d 268, 275 (3d Cir.2006); Thomas v. Independence Twp., 463 F.3d 285, 296 (3d Cir. 2006) ("In order to plead a retaliation claim under the First Amendment, a plaintiff must allege: (1) constitutionally protected conduct, (2) retaliatory action ...


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