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Cleef v. Seneca County

April 27, 2009


The opinion of the court was delivered by: Michael A. Telesca United States District Judge



Plaintiff Louis Van Cleef ("Plaintiff" and/or "Van Cleef") brings this action against defendants Seneca County, the Seneca County Sheriff's Department ("Sheriff's Department"), Leo T. Connolly, Individually and in his capacity as Seneca County Sheriff ("Connolly"), and James Larson, Individually and in his capacity as Seneca County Undersheriff ("Larson") (collectively "defendants") pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §1983 claiming that the defendants violated his civil rights under the United States Constitution and New York State Law. Specifically, plaintiff alleges three separate causes of action including: (1) First Amendment retaliation; (2) Monell violations by maintaining unconstitutional policies that allowed officers to violate the rights of public employees; and (3) "Class-of-one" theory of Equal Protection. Plaintiff seeks compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney's fees and costs as well as prejudgment interest for the deprivation of his civil rights.

Defendants, Seneca County, the Sheriff's Department and Larson move to dismiss plaintiff's Complaint pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), alleging that plaintiff has failed to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and that they are entitled to a dismissal as a matter of law. Defendant Larson further contends that he is entitled to qualified immunity. In addition, Connolly moves for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). Plaintiff has opposed all motions filed against him. For the reasons set forth below, defendants' motions to dismiss under 12(b)(6) and motion for judgment on the pleadings under 12(c) are granted.


Unless otherwise noted, the following facts are taken from plaintiff's Complaint. Plaintiff began working for the Sheriff's Department in 1993 and currently holds the position of drug investigator with the rank of Lieutenant. See Complaint, ¶¶4,10,12. He alleges that his problems with his employer started in the fall of 2004 when plaintiff, together with Larson and other co-workers were planning a non work-related trip to Florida. See id. ¶13. It is alleged that Larson obtained approval from Connolly to treat the Florida vacation as work-related training. See id. ¶14. Plaintiff claims he informed Connolly that he was uncomfortable with using Seneca County time for personal vacation of employees. See id. ¶15. In addition, plaintiff alleges that Connolly threatened him and insisted that plaintiff treat the Florida vacation as official training. See id. ¶18.

In January 2005, plaintiff attended a conference in Buffalo with Larson and other co-workers. See id. ¶19. According to plaintiff, Seneca County was charged for the conference. See id. ¶20. However, plaintiff alleges that Larson encouraged plaintiff and his co-workers to leave the conference before it actually started. See id. Plaintiff claims he communicated his disapproval of Larson's conduct. See id. ¶21. Ever since plaintiff voiced his objections regarding events that began in the fall of 2004, plaintiff alleges he experienced retaliation from Connolly and Larson which "ma[de] his life hell" including: alienating him from his co-workers; instigating a drug investigation of plaintiff and his girlfriend; conducting surveillance on plaintiff; subjecting plaintiff to disparate scrutiny at the office; giving plaintiff unfavorable work assignments; creating bias against him from other co-workers; attempting to discipline or discharge plaintiff on false grounds; using the District Attorney's office to make false accusations against plaintiff; and attempting to ruin plaintiff's personal and professional reputation. See id. ¶25.


I. Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings and Motions to Dismiss

A Rule 12(c) motion is decided under the same standard as a Rule 12(b)(6) motion. See Burnette v. Carothers, 192 F.3d 52, 56 (2d Cir. 1999) ("In deciding a Rule 12(c) motion, we apply the same standard as that applicable to a motion under Rule 12(b)(6)"), cert. denied, 531 U.S. 1052 (2000); see also Desiano v. Warner-Lambert & Co., 467 F.3d 85, 89 (2d Cir.2006). In deciding a motion to dismiss under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), a court must "accept...all factual allegations in the complaint and draw...all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." See Ruotolo v. City of New York, 514 F.3d 184, 188 (2d Cir.2008) (internal quotation marks omitted). In order to withstand dismissal, the complaint must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." See Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 1974 (2007) (disavowing the oft-quoted statement from Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41 (1957), that "a complaint should not be dismissed for failure to state a claim unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief").

"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 entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." See id. at 1965 (internal quotation marks omitted). Thus, "at a bare minimum, the operative standard requires the 'plaintiff [to] provide the grounds upon which his claim rests through factual allegations sufficient to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.'" See Goldstein v. Pataki, 516 F.3d 50, 56-57 (2d Cir.2008) (quoting Twombly, 127 S.Ct. at 1974).

II. Plaintiff's First Amendment Retaliation Claim is Dismissed

The Second Circuit Court of Appeals has acknowledged that "the elements of a First Amendment retaliation claim are dependent on the 'factual context' of the case before the district court." See Lukowski v. County of Seneca et al., 2009 WL 467075, at *6 (W.D.N.Y.2009) (J.Telesca) citing Williams v. Town of Greenburgh, 535 F.3d 71, 76 (2d Cir.2008). In this instance, where the plaintiff, a lieutenant in the Sheriff's Department is a public employee who claims First Amendment retaliation, he must allege the following: "(1) the speech at issue was made as a citizen on matters of public concern rather than as an employee on matters of personal interest; (2) he or she suffered an adverse employment action; and (3) the speech was at least a substantial or motivating factor in the adverse employment action." See Johnson v. Ganim, 342 F.3d 105, 112 (2d Cir.2003) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted); Morrison v. Johnson, 429 F.3d 48, 51 (2d Cir.2005); see also Woodlock v. Orange Ulster B.O.C.E.S., 281 Fed.Appx. 66, 68, 2008 WL 2415726 at *1 (2d Cir. 2008); Skehan v. Vill. of Mamaroneck, 465 F.3d 96, 106 (2d Cir.2006)); Sheppard v. Beerman, 94 F.3d 823, 827 (2d Cir.1996).

The First Amendment protects the right of public employees to speak-out without fear of reprisal on issues of public concern. See Frank v. Relin, 1 F.3d 1317 (2d Cir., 1993), cert. denied, 510 U.S. 1012 (1993); see also Ezekwo v. NYC Health & Hosp. Corp., 940 F.2d 775, 780 (2d Cir.1991) (It is well-settled that a public employer may not ...

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