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Cooper v. Metropolitan Transportation Authority

July 13, 2006

MATTHEW COOPER, PLAINTIFF,
v.
METROPOLITAN TRANSPORTATION AUTHORITY, ET AL. DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Laura Taylor Swain, Usdj

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Plaintiff Matthew Cooper ("Plaintiff') commenced this action on January 15, 2004, against Defendant Metro-North, an agency of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority ("MTA"), and Defendants S.L. Harrington ("Harrington") and Andrew J. Paul ("Paul") (collectively "the Defendants") alleging, inter alia, unlawful retaliatory discharge from employment. The Court dismissed the original complaint as against Defendants Metro-North/MTA and Defendants Harrington and Paul in their official capacities (collectively the "Municipal Defendants") with leave to replead. The Court, however, denied Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiff's claims as against Harrington and Paul in their individual capacities. Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint on July 5, 2005, alleging that several violations of his constitutional rights give rise to municipal liability and again asserting that the Municipal Defendants can be held liable for those violations under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983. Plaintiff also brings defamation and breach of employment contract causes of action under state law.

Defendants have moved to dismiss the Amended Complaint, asserting that (1) Plaintiff fails to state a claim for municipal liability against the Municipal Defendants, and (2) Defendants Harrington and Paul are public officials entitled to qualified immunity. For the reasons that follow, Defendants' motion to dismiss the Amended Complaint is denied as to Plaintiffs first, third, and fifth causes of action. Defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion is granted, however, as to Plaintiffs second and seventh causes of action. The Court has jurisdiction of this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. Sections 1331, 1343 and 1367.

BACKGROUND

The facts alleged in Plaintiffs Amended Complaint are taken as true for the purposes of this motion. See Blue Tree Hotels Inv. (Canada), Ltd. v. Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, Inc., 369 F.3d 212, 217 (2d Cir. 2004). Plaintiff joined Metro-North as a signal manager in 1991, and was promoted to Operations Manager in December 1999. (Am. Compl. 11, 13.) On August 15, 2003, Plaintiff and twelve others were injured in a train collision that also caused approximately $130,000 in property damage. (Id.¶ 41.) At the time of the collision, Plaintiff was acting in his capacity as Operations Manager, and was attempting to rescue an electrical train that had become inoperative during the blackout occurring that day. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 29.) Plaintiff alleges that the August 15th collision was caused by inadequate training of the crew, an issue he had raised with superiors prior to the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 32, 44.) He also alleges that an order to push the inoperative train, which allegedly was a factor in causing the accident, was given in violation of safety regulations and good operating procedure. (Id. 31-40.) Plaintiff additionally alleges that Defendant Harrington, Metro-North's Deputy Chief of Operations Services, ordered him to take full responsibility for the collision, which Plaintiff refused to do. (Id. ¶¶ 9, 43.) At the time of these events, Defendant Paul worked at Metro-North and held the position of Deputy Director of Labor Relations. (Id. ¶ 10.) On either September 2 or 3, 2003, Harrington, with the approval of Defendant Paul, terminated Plaintiff's employment for insubordination after Plaintiff twice failed to attend formal hearings held to determine the cause of the August 15th collision. (Id. ¶¶ 25, 26, 45.) Plaintiff contends that he was unable to attend the hearings because of physical disabilities resulting from the collision and that he provided a physician's note to Defendants explaining his inability to work or attend hearings. (Id. 19.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants used the insubordination charge as a pretext and that he was actually discharged in retaliation for his refusal to take responsibility for the August 15th collision and to prevent him from testifying at hearings concerning the incident. (Id. ¶¶ 47, 48, 61.)

Metro-North's "Termination of Employment" policy, which is attached to the Amended Complaint, provides that "[i]nvoluntary terminations of management employees should be reviewed by the Director, Human Resources with the Department Director before termination." (Id. 46, Ex. A.) Plaintiff claims that Defendants Harrington and Paul used this policy to discharge him, thus preventing him from testifying about the cause of the August 15th collision. (Id. 44.) Plaintiff also asserts in the Amended Complaint that Defendant Harrington was a policymaker empowered to make policy decisions for Metro-North/MTA, and that Defendant Paul was empowered to make policy decisions with regard to the Plaintiff on behalf of Metro-North/MTA. (Id. ¶¶ 9-10.)

The Amended Complaint also contains an attachment of Metro-North's "Sick and Disability Leave" policy and a letter written by Defendant Paul to the General Chairman of the Association of Commuter Employees Union ("ACRE") concerning Plaintiff's alleged insubordination. (Id. Ex. A, B.) Plaintiff offers these materials in support of his claims that Defendants deprived him of his property and liberty interests.

DISCUSSION

Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

In considering a motion to dismiss a complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court is obliged to accept as true the allegations in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Blue Tree Hotels Inv., 369 F.3d at 217. Rule 8(a) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure requires only that a complaint include a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" Leatherman v. Tarrant County Narcotics Intelligence & Coordination Unit, 507 U.S. 163, 168 (1993). The Court's review is "limited to the facts and allegations that are contained in the complaint and in any documents that are either incorporated into the complaint by reference or attached to the complaint as exhibits." Id. The Court may grant a Rule 12(b)(6) motion "only if it is clear that no relief could be granted under any set of facts that could be proved consistent with the allegations" in the complaint. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema, 534 U.S. 506, 514 (2002). "[F]ederal courts are not permitted to apply a heightened pleading standard . . . in civil rights cases alleging municipal liability under § 1983." Leatherman, 507 U.S. at 168 (citation and internal quotation marks omitted).

Municipal Liability

To establish municipal liability, a plaintiff must identify a "government policy or custom, whether made by its lawmakers or by those whose edicts or acts may fairly be said to represent official policy," that inflicts an injury under Section 1983. Monell v. New York City Dept. of Soc. Servs., 436 U.S. 658, 694 (1978). In Monell, the Court held that a municipality may not be held liable based on a theory of respondeat superior. Id. Thus, not every action taken by public officials subjects a municipality to Section 1983 liability; "municipal liability attaches only where the decisionmaker possesses final authority to establish municipal policy." Pembaur v. City of Cincinnati, 475 U.S. 469, 482 (1986) (plurality opinion) (emphasis added). "[T]he question of whether a given official is the municipality's final policymaker in a given area is a matter of law to be decided by the court." Jeffes v. Barnes, 208 F.3d 49, 57 (2d Cir. 2000). The public official must have policymaking authority with respect to "the action alleged to have caused the particular constitutional or statutory violation." Jett v. Dallas Indep. Sch. Dist., 491 U.S. 701, 737 (1989). In a case involving retaliatory discharge, city officials not authorized to make employment policy lack final authority to provide a basis for municipal liability. City of St. Louis v. Praprotnik, 485 U.S. 112, 128 (1988) (plurality opinion). Additionally, when an official's decisions are constrained by written municipal policies or subjected to review, that official lacks final policymaking authority. Id. at 127.

In the Amended Complaint, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants Harrington and Paul were empowered to make policy decisions on behalf of Metro-North and the MTA. Although the Second Circuit has held that complaints containing only conclusory, vague, or general allegations supporting claims of municipal liability should be dismissed for failure to state a claim, Dwares v. City of New York, 985 F.2d 94, 100 (2d Cir. 1993), Leatherman appears to have rejected this interpretation of the pleading standard applicable to municipal liability claims. See Leatherman, 507 U.S. at 165, 168; see also Simpkins v. Bellevue Hosp., 832 F. Supp. 69, 74 n.3 (S.D.N.Y. 1993) ("[T]he Leatherman opinion . . . appears to change the law in the Second Circuit which theretofore required dismissal of a complaint which merely asserted conclusorily the existence of a policy without allegations of fact beyond the single incident alleged in the complaint."). Several Second Circuit district courts have observed that Leatherman appears to adopt the Ninth Circuit rule that "a claim of municipal liability under Section 1983 is sufficient to withstand a motion to dismiss even if the claim is based on nothing more than a bare allegation that the individual officers' conduct conformed to official policy, custom, or practice." Karim-Panahi v. Los Angeles Police Dept., 839 F.2d 621, 624 (9th Cir. 1988); see, e.g., Hughes v. City of Hartford, 96 F. Supp. 2d 114, 116-17 (D. Conn. 2000); Lucas v. New York City, No. 95 CIV. 0854 (MBM), 1995 WL 675477, at *3 (S.D.N.Y. Nov. 14, 1995); Simpkins, 832 F. Supp. at 7374. Under the Leatherman rule, therefore, Plaintiff's bare allegations that Harrington was a "policy maker" and that both Harrington and Paul were empowered to make policy decisions on behalf of Metro-North/MTA are sufficient, albeit minimally so, to withstand the instant Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See Leatherman, 507 U.S. at 165, 168.

Defendants contend that Plaintiff has not sufficiently plead a basis for municipal liability, as the Amended Complaint does not allege that Harrington and Paul had final decisionmaking authority over Metro-North's employment policies. However, when read as a whole and in the light most favorable to the Plaintiff, the Amended Complaint is sufficient to support a reasonable inference that ...


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