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Patricia Lynch v. the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation Inc

July 29, 2011

PATRICIA LYNCH, PLAINTIFF,
v.
THE SOUTHAMPTON ANIMAL SHELTER FOUNDATION INC., SUSAN ALLEN, SUSAN KELLY, THE TOWN OF SOUTHAMPTON, AND DONALD BAMBRICK, DEFENDANTS.



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

MEMORANDUM OF DECISION AND ORDER

This is the second case to come before this Court involving the plaintiff Patricia Lynch's ("Lynch" or "the Plaintiff") written and spoken criticism of the animal euthanasia policy and operational policies at The Southampton Animal Shelter ("the Shelter"). The events underlying the first case, Lynch v. Town of Southampton ("Lynch I"), No. 05-CV-4499 took place when the Shelter was operated by the Town of Southampton (the "Town"), and arose from the Town's decision to terminate Lynch as a volunteer at the Shelter on February 27, 2004. In addition to the Town, Lynch named her supervisor Donald Bambrick ("Bambrick") as a defendant in the case. After a jury trial, the Town, but not Bambrick, was held liable pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for retaliating against Lynch for exercising her First Amendment right to free speech.

Subsequent to the resolution of Lynch I, the Town entered into an agreement with the Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, Inc. ("the Foundation") to privatize aspects of the Shelter's operations. On January 12, 2010, after the Foundation assumed control of the Shelter, Lynch's application to volunteer at the Shelter was denied. As a result, Lynch commenced the instant action against the Foundation, its senior officer and director Susan Allen ("Allen"), the Director of Personnel Susan Kelly (("Kelly") and together with the Foundation and Allen "the Foundation Defendants"), as well as the Town and Bambrick ("the Town Defendants"). The Plaintiff alleges that the Foundation Defendants and the Town Defendants (collectively "the Defendants") denied her application to volunteer at the Shelter in retaliation for her exercising of her First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of her grievances in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986.

Presently before the Court are the motions by the Foundation Defendants and the Town Defendants to dismiss the Plaintiff's complaint, or in the alternative to strike certain portions thereof, pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(f) ("Rule 12(f)"). Although filed separately, the motions are substantively identical and therefore the Court will treat them as one motion brought by all of the Defendants. For the reasons set forth below, the Court denies the motion to dismiss the complaint and grants in part and denies in part the motion to strike.

I. BACKGROUND

Although the complaint in this action contains a considerable amount of detail, the basic facts are fairly straightforward. Patricia Lynch is an investigative journalist who, beginning in October 2000, started investigating conditions at The Southampton Animal Shelter. At that time, the Shelter was operated by the Town of Southampton, and was supervised by senior Animal Control Officer Donald Bambrick. From October 2000 until in or about February 2004, Lynch was a volunteer at the Shelter. However, Lynch's involvement with the Shelter extended beyond that of a volunteer. As an investigative journalist, Lynch asserts that she attempted to further the interests of the Shelter and she produced a documentary film about conditions at the Shelter in January 2001. In addition, in June of 2003, Lynch began a radio show called "Pet of the Week" to help to get animals adopted by members of the community. In addition, Lynch began writing a newspaper column called "Shelter Stories" for The Southampton Press regarding animals for adoption. As detailed more fully in the complaint, through her radio show, her "Shelter Stories" and other newspaper columns, letters to the editor, and other forms of public outreach, Lynch openly criticized, among other things: (1) the Shelter's animal euthanasia policies; (2) the Shelter's facility operations; (3) the manner of construction of a new shelter; (4) the use of taxpayer's money in the operations of the Shelter; and (5) the Shelter's adoption policies.

On February 24, 2004, Lynch filed a lawsuit in the state court against the Town seeking an order enjoining the Shelter from euthanizing animals. See Lynch v. Town of Southampton, Index No. 5966-2004 (N.Y. Sup. Ct., Suffolk County) (the "State Action"). According to Lynch, the Town was given notice of the impending motion for an injunction on February 23, 2004; the request for an injunction was filed on February 24, 2004; and was subsequently covered in the local press on February 25, 2004. On August 19, 2004, Justice Melvyn Tanenbaum rendered a decision in the State Action, denying the request for an injunction and holding that there was "insufficient relevant and admissible evidence submitted to provide proof that the respondents have engaged in unreasonable and arbitrary decisions to euthanize dogs under the policy." (Brown Decl., Ex. B at 6.)

On February 27, 2004, three days after the Town received notice of the State Action, Lynch was terminated from her position as a volunteer at the Shelter and banned from further association with the Shelter. As a result, on September 22, 2005, Lynch commenced a federal action against the Town and Bambrick alleging that her position was terminated in retaliation for her speech criticizing the Shelter and its policies. See Lynch v. Town of Southampton ("Lynch I"), No. 05-CV-4499 (Spatt, J.). This Court held a jury trial in Lynch I between February 6 and February 12, 2007, and on February 14, 2007 the jury found that the Town, but not Bambrick, was liable for retaliating against Lynch. On December 2, 2008 the Second Circuit affirmed the jury verdict and the judgment. Lynch v. Town of Southampton, 2008 WL 5083010 (2d Cir. Dec. 02, 2008).

Subsequent to the Second Circuit's decision affirming the jury's verdict in Lynch I, the Shelter permitted Lynch to resume her duties as a volunteer dog walker.

In the spring of 2009, Lynch was allegedly approached by Susan Allen and Sonia Schotland to assist them with attempting to privatize the Shelter. To some extent, both Allen and Schotland had been previously involved with the Shelter. In fact, Lynch alleges that her public criticism of their involvement when the Shelter was operated by the Town resulted in both Allen and Schotland influencing the Town's decision to terminate her as a volunteer in 2004.

Lynch contends that Allen is a private donor and the co-founder of a charity called "Best Friends". The complaint in this action includes certain allegations about alleged improprieties by the Best Friends charity, but there is no indication that Lynch actively reported or spoke out against Best Friends. Rather, the main source of Lynch's interactions with Allen prior to 2009 involve Lynch's allegations that Allen was actively involved in financing the Shelter's new facility in August 2002 and was Bambrick's silent partner in the operation of the Shelter until the summer of 2004. Lynch claims that in this capacity, Allen exerted undue influence and condoned certain misconduct at the Shelter which Lynch reported on in the press. As a result, Lynch claims that Allen retaliated against her in the press, and that Allen told Town officials that she would discontinue donating to the Shelter unless Lynch was no longer involved. Lynch contends that Allen's involvement was influential in the Town's decision to terminate her in February of 2004, and the most recent decision to deny her volunteer application.

Lynch's previous interaction with Schotland involved a non-profit shelter that Schotland co-founded called the Animal Rescue Fund ("ARF"). According to Lynch, at an undisclosed time, she published records that she received through the Freedom of Information Act purportedly showing that ARF gave dogs with behavioral problems to the Shelter to be euthanized. Lynch contends that in response, Schotland called her a liar and vilified her in the press, and that proponents of ARF influenced the Town's decision to terminate her as volunteer in 2004. Although Schotland is not a named defendant in this action, Lynch alleges that Schotland, as a director of the Foundation, currently has influence over the Foundation and the Town's decisions.

Despite the contentious nature of their previous interactions, Lynch claims that she assisted Allen and Schotland throughout 2009 with their goal of privatizing the Shelter by writing a number of letters to the editor of The Southampton Press and meeting with numerous Town officials to garner support for the plan. In or about September 2009, The Southampton Animal Shelter Foundation, Inc., was incorporated as a non-profit corporation and began negotiations with the Town to allow the Foundation to take over the operations of the Shelter.

On December 21, 2009, the Town entered into an agreement with the Foundation permitting it to operate and manage the Shelter for a three-year term beginning January 1, 2010. ("the Shelter Operating Agreement"). One issue in this litigation is the scope of the Shelter Operating Agreement and to what extent the Town remained involved in the relevant operations of the Shelter.

In the first week of January 2010, when Lynch arrived at the Shelter to volunteer, she was handed a volunteer application. The volunteer application requested information with regard to whether the applicant had ever been involved in litigation. Lynch disclosed the State Action and Lynch I. On January 9, 2010, Lynch received a letter from defendant Susan Kelly, the Foundation's Director of Personnel, requesting additional information about the two lawsuits, which Lynch subsequently provided. Then, on January 12, 2010, Kelly wrote to Lynch, stating that the Shelter had sought the advice of counsel, and, based on her prior litigations, had decided to decline her application to volunteer. According to Lynch, approximately one week later, another individual went to the Shelter to offer her services as a volunteer and was not required to fill out a volunteer application or provide any information about past litigation.

As a result, on June 24, 2010, Lynch filed the instant action alleging that the Town Defendants and the Foundation Defendants either jointly or as part of a conspiracy, denied her application to volunteer at the Shelter in retaliation for her exercising of her First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of her grievances in violation of 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986. Although the adverse employment action is different, the underlying speech that Lynch contends serves as the basis for the retaliation is the same as the speech involved in Lynch I.

On September 7, 2010, the Foundation Defendants filed a motion to strike pursuant to Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(f) and on January 7, 2011, the Town Defendants filed a nearly identical motion. Accordingly, as stated above, the Court will address the motions as one motion brought by all of the Defendants.

The Defendants contend that the Court should either dismiss the complaint for violations of the pleading requirements in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or dismiss certain portions of the complaint that are irrelevant, scandalous, inflammatory, and prejudicial.

II. DISCUSSION

Either sua sponte or on motion, the Court may dismiss the complaint in its entirety for failing to comply with the pleading requirements in the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure or may strike any portions of the complaint that violate ...


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