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Gregory B. Olma v. Chris Collins

August 25, 2011

GREGORY B. OLMA, PLAINTIFF,
v.
CHRIS COLLINS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ERIE COUNTY EXECUTIVE, CHRISTOPHER M. GRANT, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS AN EMPLOYEE OF ERIE COUNTY, JOHN GREENAN, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS PERSONNEL COMMISSIONER OF ERIE COUNTY, GREGORY SKIBITSKY, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS COMMISSIONER OF THE ERIE COUNTY DEPARTMENT OF EMERGENCY SERVICES, AND THE COUNTY OF ERIE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Honorable Richard J. Arcara United States District Judge

DECISION AND ORDER

I. INTRODUCTION

Pending before the Court is a motion by defendants Chris Collins ("Collins"), Christopher Grant, John Greenan, Gregory Skibitsky, and the County of Erie to dismiss plaintiff Gregory Olma's amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure ("FRCP"). Plaintiff has accused defendants of violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to political speech and association by firing him for political reasons, thereby entitling him to relief under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.*fn1 In their motion, defendants argue that plaintiff's claims of politically motivated termination are not legally cognizable because a duly enacted resolution of the Erie County Legislature eliminated his position. Plaintiff counters that the elimination of his position was a mere formality after defendants targeted him for his political speech and affiliation.

The Court held oral argument on August 12, 2011. For the reasons below, the Court grants defendants' motion in part to dismiss the action against the individual defendants in their official capacities. The Court otherwise denies defendants' motion.

II. BACKGROUND

This case concerns allegations that defendants wrongfully terminated plaintiff to retaliate for plaintiff's support of Collins's opponents in the 2007 election for Erie County Executive. Some basic facts appear not to be in dispute. In or around October 2006, plaintiff was provisionally appointed to the civil-service position of Senior Administrative Assistant for Homeland Security at the Erie County Department of Emergency Services. This position paid an annual salary of $38,648. Through a resolution proposed on January 21, 2011 and adopted on February 13, 2008 (the "Budget Amendment"), the Erie County Legislature amended the 2008 County budget that it passed in December 2007, before Collins took office. The Budget Amendment eliminated plaintiff's position along with a position of Grant Monitoring Specialist for Homeland Security in the Erie County Department of Central Police Services. In the text of the Budget Amendment, the Erie County Legislature cited a decrease in federal homeland-security funding as the reason for the eliminations. On February 15, 2008, plaintiff received notice that he would be terminated effective February 27, 2008 due to a lack of funding for his position.

The heart of plaintiff's amended complaint consists of what he believes is the real reason for the elimination of his position, which had nothing to do with funding decreases. According to plaintiff, the Erie County Legislature passed the County's 2008 budget in December 2007, based on proposals from outgoing County Executive Joel Giambra. The original 2008 budget contained funding for plaintiff's position and the Grant Monitoring Specialist position. Nonetheless, plaintiff's situation changed following the 2007 election for County Executive. Plaintiff had supported Democratic candidates for County Executive, but Collins, a Republican, won the election. Thereafter, defendants hatched a scheme through which they would disguise a politically motivated termination as a budgetary move. The first step of the scheme consisted of delaying the release of plaintiff's civil-service examination score, which was high enough to warrant a permanent appointment to his position. Next, Collins proposed the Budget Amendment to the Erie County Legislature, proposing that plaintiff's position and the Grant Monitoring Specialist position be eliminated because of a decrease in funding.*fn2 The crux of the scheme was that person filling the Grant Monitoring Specialist position, a woman by the name of Janet Vogtli ("Vogtli"), was a Republican Party member and donor who subsequently would be rehired in another County department. According to plaintiff, the ostensible termination and subsequent transfer of Vogtli would give defendants cover for their politically motivated termination of plaintiff. The alleged scheme ran its course when the Erie County Legislature adopted the Budget Amendment.

In response to what he considers political retribution, plaintiff filed his original complaint on January 21, 2011 and his amended complaint on June 3, 2011. The amended complaint contains five causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. In the first cause of action, plaintiff accuses defendants of jointly and severally conspiring to terminate him, in violation of his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to political speech, because he supported Democratic candidates for County Executive in the 2007 election. In the second cause of action, plaintiff accuses defendants of violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights to political affiliation. In the third cause of action, plaintiff accuses defendants of violating his rights to political affiliation by failing to train County staff with respect to constitutional restrictions on terminating employees. In the fourth cause of action, plaintiff accuses Collins of violating his First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by "fail[ing] to properly supervise his staff and subordinates and fail[ing] to intervene to stop the illegal plans and activities he was aware of or which occurred in his immediate presence." (Dkt. No. 9 ¶ 82.) In the fifth cause of action, plaintiff asserts that the County of Erie itself faces municipal liability because Collins and the Erie County Legislature endorsed plaintiff's wrongful termination in their official capacities.

Defendants filed their motion to dismiss on June 24, 2011. Defendants advance several arguments for dismissal. First, defendants want the amended complaint dismissed to the extent that it alleges claims against anyone in their official capacities, given that the County of Erie itself is a named defendant. Defendants believe that naming both the County of Erie and its elected officials in their official capacities is legally redundant. Second, defendants argue that, to the extent that plaintiff is making this request, he may not recover punitive damages against a municipal entity or municipal employees sued in their official capacities. Third, defendants submit that they are entitled to absolute legislative immunity because plaintiff's termination followed a duly enacted resolution of the Erie County Legislature that eliminated plaintiff's position. Fourth, defendants contend that plaintiff has failed to allege any sort of official policy that would lead to liability against the County of Erie. Fifth, defendants maintain that the time frame of plaintiff's complaints needs to be shortened, since he filed his original complaint on January 21, 2011 and the limitations period for Section 1983 claims is only three years. Finally, defendants argue that any claim that plaintiff wants to make under 42 U.S.C. § 1985 should be dismissed because he has not pled any sort of class-based animus.

Plaintiff opposes defendants' motion with three arguments. First, plaintiff rejects defendants' argument about legislative immunity because "while a restructuring of plaintiff's department was proposed in the legislation, what in fact occurred was a de facto termination of plaintiff for illicit political motives while the only other person whose position was eliminated by the resolution was soon hired back." (Dkt. No. 14 at 1.) Second, plaintiff argues that the passage of the Budget Amendment does not fall under any immunity because Collins signed and endorsed the resolution pursuant to wrongful employment policies. Finally, plaintiff submits that there is no dispute that Erie County employees receive no training about constitutional rights.

III. DISCUSSION

A. FRCP 12(b)(6) Generally

"A pleading that states a claim for relief must contain . . . a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." FRCP 8(a)(2). "'A short and plain statement of the claim' does not mean 'a short and plain statement of the eventual jury charge for that claim' or 'a short and plain recitation of the legal elements for that claim.' FRCP 8(a)(2) requires a plaintiff to state, in concise but plausible fashion, what he currently thinks a defendant actually did to him, subject to revision during later discovery." Beswick v. Sun Pharm. Indus., Ltd., No. 10-CV-357, 2011 WL 1585740, at *5 (W.D.N.Y. Mar. 4, 2011) (Arcara, J.). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged. The plausibility standard is not akin to a probability requirement, but it asks for more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1949 (2009) (internal quotation marks and citations omitted). Courts assess the legal ...


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