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Wagner v. Lyndhurst Board of Education

United States District Court, D. New Jersey

August 3, 2018




         The plaintiff, LuAnne Wagner, alleges that she was arrested and imprisoned under false pretenses, that her purse was unlawfully seized and searched, and that she was then unlawfully retaliated against for taking leave pursuant the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 ("FMLA"), 29 U.S.C. 2601, et seq. She brings claims against her employer, the Lyndhurst Board of Education ("LBOE"), and the Lyndhurst Police Department ("LPD"), as well as several employees of both entities. Defendants, LBOE, James Corrino, Susan Robe, Elba Castrovino, and Shauna DeMarco (i.e., the school-related defendants), have moved pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6) to dismiss the complaint. For the reasons stated in this opinion, I will deny their motion to dismiss.

         I. Background [1]

         Ms. Wagner is a tenured teacher of special education with the LBOE. (Cplt. ¶ 5.) In August 2015, her husband unexpectedly passed away. (Id. ¶ 14.) Though still grieving, she returned to work. (Id. ¶ 15.) Around lunchtime on October 29, 2015, Ms. Wagner was overcome by this grief and started to cry in the main office of the school. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 16.) She was asked questions by Susan Robe, the school nurse, who "took issue" with the medication prescribed by Ms. Wagner's physician. (Id. ¶¶ 6, 18.) Ms. Wagner then heard sirens and realized that the school had contacted the police in response to her behavior. (Id. ¶ 20.) Multiple police cars arrived, and the school was placed on lockdown. (Id. ¶ 55.) She asked to be allowed to go to her parents' house, which was right across the street from the school, to take time to recover. (Id. ¶¶ 21-22.) Ms. Wagner left the main office and was walking on the sidewalk when the LPD officers stopped and detained her. (Id. ¶ 24.)

         The staff at LBOE, including the school nurse and Elba Castrovino, the school principal, told the LPD that Ms. Wagner was "in the fetal position in a closet" and that she was "suicidal." (Id. ¶¶ 7, 25.) They also told die LPD that she was under the influence of some drugs. (Id. ¶ 25.) Ms. Wagner contends that these statements were false. (Id.) After Ms. Wagner was detained, the officers searched her purse without her permission. She was taken to the police station, where she was held for an hour. (Id. ¶¶ 26-27.) She was "very upset" and was "passing out" because she was in a state of shock due to "the unjustified and surreal detainment." (Id. ¶ 28.) Her mother then arrived at the police station but had to wait 15 minutes before being allowed to see her. (Id. ¶ 29.) Ms. Wagner asked if she was free to leave but was told that she was not. [Id. ¶ 30.) Instead, she was told that she must go to the hospital. (Id.) Upon arrival at the hospital, medical staff examined Ms. Wagner and quickly determined that she was not a danger to herself or others, after which they released her. (Id. ¶¶ 31-32.)

         Following the incident, Ms. Wagner was told by LBOE that she had to participate in a "fitness for duty" evaluation, which cost her $1, 000. [Id. ¶ 33.) At some point (the date is unclear), Ms. Wagner took an FMLA leave of absence and returned to work in February 2016. (Id. ¶ 34.) Upon her return, Ms. Wagner deemed to have used up all her saved sick days. (Id. ¶ 35.) She states that this was not done to another employee who took administrative leave. (Id.) She also says that she was taunted by her coworkers and was the subject of gossip daily. (Id. ¶ 38.) On May 3, 2016, Ms. Wagner was informed that her teaching assignment in the resource room was assigned to someone else for the following school year and that she would be assigned to a more onerous position. (Id. ¶ 40.) The stated reason for the reassignment was that she had the most experience and was the most appropriate choice for the position. (Id. ¶ 41.) Ms. Wagner believes that the person who replaced her in her previous assignment, however, had adequate experience and could have been placed in the position she now holds. (Id. ¶ 42.) In this new position, Ms. Wagner has been physically assaulted by a student and has been put into a "very difficult classroom situation." (Id. ¶ 43.) Ms. Wagner sees all of these actions as punishment for her taking FMLA leave. The goal of the LBOE, she says, was to torment her into retirement. (Id. ¶ 46.)

         Ms. Wagner now sues many of the entities and people involved in the October 29, 2015 incident and the alleged post-FMLA-leave retaliation. She makes several claims against the defendants: Deprivation of Liberty under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count I); Civil Conspiracy under § 1983 (Count Ila);[2] False Imprisonment under § 1983 (Count lib); Unlawful Search under § 1983 (Count III); Deprivation of Property under § 1983 (Count IV); Violations of the New Jersey Civil Rights Act ("NJCRA"), N.J.S.A. 10:6-2(c) (Count V); Violations of the New Jersey Law Against Discrimination ("NJLAD"), N.J.S.A. 10:5-1, et seq. (Count VI); and Unlawful Retaliation under the FMLA (Count VII). Only Counts I, Ila, IV, V, VI, and VII pertain to the school-related defendants who have brought this present motion to dismiss.

         The defendants have moved to dismiss on several grounds. First, they argue that Counts I, Ila, IV, and V fall outside the Statute of Limitations. (Def. Br. at 8.) Second, they argue that Ms. Wagner has failed to comply with the notice provisions of the New Jersey Tort Claims Act ("NJTCA"), N.J.S.A. 59:1-1, et seq., for Counts I and Ila. (Def. Br. at 11.) Finally, they argue that Ms. Wagner has failed to allege sufficient facts to satisfy the elements of the causes of action for Counts VI and VII. (Def. Br. at 14.)

         II. Discussion and Analysis

         a. Standard on Rule 12(b)(6) motion

         Rule 12(b)(6) provides for the dismissal of a complaint, in whole or in part, if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. The defendant, as the moving party, bears the burden of showing that no claim has been stated. Animal Science Prods,, Inc. v. China Minmetals Corp., 654 F.3d 462, 469 n.9 (3d Cir. 2011). For the purposes of a motion to dismiss, the facts alleged in the complaint are accepted as true and all reasonable inferences are drawn in favor of the plaintiff. N.J. Carpenters & the Trustees Thereof v. Tishman Const. Corp. of N.J., 760 F.3d 297, 302 (3d Cir. 2014).

         Federal Rule of Procedure 8(a) does not require that a complaint contain detailed factual allegations. Nevertheless, "a plaintiffs obligation to provide the 'grounds' of his 'entitlement 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). Thus, the complaint's factual allegations must be sufficient to raise a plaintiffs right to relief above a speculative level, so that a claim is "plausible on its face." Id. at 570; see also West Run Student Hous. Assocs., LLC v. Huntington Nat Bank, 712 F.3d 165, 169 (3d Cir. 2013). That facial-plausibility standard is met "when the plaintiff pleads 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, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). While "[t]he plausibility standard is not akin to a 'probability requirement'. . . it asks for more than a sheer possibility." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         "Under Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(c), the statute of limitations constitutes an affirmative defense to an action. Under the law of this and other circuits, however, the limitations defense may be raised on a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), but only if 'the time alleged in the statement of a claim shows that the cause of action has not been brought within the statute of limitations.” Bethel v. Jendoco Constr. Corp., 570 F.2d 1168, 1174 (3d Cir. 1978) (quoting Hanna v. U.S. Veterans' Admin. Hosp., 514 F.2d 1092, 1094 (3d Cir. 1975)). If the time bar is not apparent from the face of the complaint, "then it may not afford the basis for a dismissal of the complaint under Rule 12(b)(6)." Id.

         b. Compliance with the NJTCA ...

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