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Cox v. Onondaga County Sheriff's Dep't

March 31, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Neal P. McCurn, Senior District Judge


I. Introduction

Presently before the court is a motion to dismiss the complaint by defendant Deputy Sheriff Odell Willis ("Willis"). Plaintiffs Steven Cox, Thomas Bingham, Edward Kalen, Michael McCarty and Robert Scott Feldman ("Plaintiffs") are, like Willis, Deputy Sheriffs for the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department. Also named as defendants to this action are the County of Onondaga; the Onondaga County Sheriff's Department; Kevin E. Walsh, Onondaga County Sheriff; Captain John Wolszyn; former Onondaga County Executive Nicholas Pirro; and current Onondaga County Executive Joannie Mahoney. Plaintiffs, each appearing pro se, oppose Willis's motion, and Willis replies. The motion is decided on the papers submitted, without oral argument.

II. Background

The following allegations in Plaintiffs' complaint ("the Complaint"), which are limited to those regarding Willis, the sole moving defendant, will be accepted as true for purposes of deciding the present motion. See infra, at 5.

Plaintiffs Steven Cox, Thomas Bingham, Michael McCarty and Robert Scott Feldman shaved their heads "in a show of friendship and comradery" to support fellow deputy and plaintiff, Edward Kalen, who had lost his hair as a result of undergoing chemotherapy treatment for cancer. Compl. ¶ 17. Thereafter, Willis and several other African American deputies approached Plaintiffs and inquired regarding the reason why Plaintiffs' heads had been shaved. "Statements were made labeling the Plaintiffs[] 'skin heads' and derogatory comments soon followed accusing the Plaintiffs of anti Black remarks and racial epithets." Id. ¶ 19. "Over the course of the next several months, this rumor gained force and promoted a dangerous work environment." Id. ¶ 20. Inmates threatened and verbally abused Plaintiffs, and the African American deputies became distant and distrustful of Plaintiffs. Plaintiffs were further subject to segregation at work, "and the reality that they would no longer be considered for promotion and/or raises." Id. Willis's actions "fanned" this continuing conduct, which "caused a racially hostile and unsafe working environment." Id. ¶ 25.

According to Plaintiffs, they subsequently filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC"), "alleging that they had been discriminated against and subjected to different terms and conditions than of similarly situated African American Sheriff Deputies." Id. ¶ 29. Attached to the Complaint is a right-to-sue letter issued to plaintiff Steven Cox on January 8, 2008. The present action was filed on April 9, 2008, within the time period required by law.*fn1

By the Complaint, Plaintiffs first allege that this action is one for retaliation for having complained of racial discrimination arising under the provisions of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as amended, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e et seq. ("Title VII"); New York Human Rights Law, section 290 of the New York Executive Law ("NYHRL"); 42 U.S.C. §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, and 1988; the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution; and Article 1, Section 11 of the Constitution of the State of New York. The caption of Plaintiffs' sole cause of action against the defendants indicates that it is a claim "pursuant to section 1981 for disparate treatment, retaliation and discrimination pursuant to the [Fourteenth] Amendment of the United States Constitution et al." See Compl., caption between ¶¶ 32 and 33. However, Plaintiffs continue in their subsequent allegations to explain that the defendants retaliated against Plaintiffs for actions protected under Title VII, that Plaintiffs have complied with the conditions precedent to a Title VII action and that they are entitled to relief under that statute. See id. ¶¶ 35, 37-38.

Willis seeks dismissal of the entire complaint against him for failure to state claims upon which relief may be granted pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). Specifically, Willis argues that Plaintiffs cannot state a Title VII claim against him because individuals cannot be held liable under that statute. Willis makes the same argument against Plaintiffs' NYHRL claim, and further argues that Willis does not fall within the exceptions to individual liability under that statute. Finally, Willis argues that the allegations in the Complaint regarding his involvement in the actions underlying Plaintiffs' claims do not sufficiently state claims against him under §§ 1981, 1983, 1985, 1988 or either the United States or New York Constitutions.

III. Discussion

A. Legal Standard

When deciding a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6), the court must accept the allegations of fact in the complaint as true, drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. See World Religious Relief, Inc. v. Sirius Satellite Radio, Inc., No. 05-CV-8257, 2007 WL 2261549, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Aug. 7, 2007) (quoting Hernandez v. Coughlin, 18 F.3d 133, 136 (2d Cir.1994)). A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) may not be granted so long as the complaint includes "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007).*fn2 The Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit has interpreted the foregoing language to require that lower courts apply "a flexible 'plausibility standard,' which obliges a pleader to amplify a claim with some factual allegations in those contexts where such amplification is needed to render the claim plausible[,]" but does not require a heightened pleading standard for civil rights claims. Iqbal v. Hasty, 490 F.3d 143, 157-58 (2d Cir.2007) (emphasis in original). In accordance with this standard, the plaintiff is required, "at a bare minimum, . . . [to] provide the grounds upon which his claim rests through factual allegations sufficient 'to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" Goldstein v. Pataki, 516 F.3d 50, 56 -57 (2d Cir. 2008) (citing ATSI Commc'ns., Inc. v. Shaar Fund, Ltd., 493 F.3d 87, 98 (2d Cir. 2007)) (quoting Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1965))).

The court is also mindful of the well-established principle that apro se litigant's papers are to be construed liberally, especially when civil rights violations are alleged. See Sealed Plaintiff v. Sealed Defendant, 537 F.3d 185, 191 ( 2d Cir. 2008) (internal citations omitted). Thus, "a pro secomplaint, however inartfully pleaded, must be held to less stringent standards than formal pleadings drafted by lawyers." Boykin v. KeyCorp, 521 F.3d 202, 214 (2d Cir. 2008) (quoting Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007) (per curiam)). Accordingly, the court must interpret Plaintiff's "submissions to raise the strongest arguments that they suggest." Diaz v. United States, 517 F.3d 608, 613 (2d Cir. 2008) (internal quotation and citation omitted). Further, "when reviewing pro sesubmissions, a district court should ...

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