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John A. Beck v. Gary L. Coats

July 19, 2012


The opinion of the court was delivered by: David N. Hurd United States District Judge



Pro se plaintiff John A. Beck ("plaintiff" or "Beck") brings this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Beck alleges that defendants Gary L. Coats, Code Enforcement Officer for the Town of Groton, New York ("Coats"); Glenn Morey, Groton Town Supervisor ("Morey"); and the Town of Groton ("the Town") (collectively "defendants") have violated his constitutional rights by enforcing a town land use and development code that infringes upon his freedom of speech. Plaintiff seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as "an end to this harrassment [sic] of my civil rights." Compl. ¶ 6.

Defendants answered the complaint and have filed a motion for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Plaintiff opposes the motion. Defendants did not file a reply. The motion was considered on submit.


The following facts, taken from the complaint and documents incorporated by reference therein, are accepted as true for purposes of this motion.

The Town's Land Use and Development Code of 1995, Article 3, section 316.7 ("section 316.7") permits a maximum of two signs of up to fifty square feet in size on property such as Beck's.*fn1 In May 2009 Coats advised Beck to remove various signs from his property located along Route 222 in Groton, New York. On August 4, 2009, Coats sent a letter to plaintiff noting the continued presence of the signs and requesting a meeting. Coats issued a notice on June 10, 2010, informing plaintiff that the signs on his property violated section 316.7. This notice requested that plaintiff eliminate the violation by June 21, 2010. In July 2010 plaintiff was served with a summons accusing him of violating section 316.7 by displaying signs that exceeded the number and square footage allowed.

A bench trial was eventually scheduled for February 8, 2011, in the Town court. When plaintiff arrived at court on that date, however, he was advised by the court clerk that the case had been adjourned. On March 29, 2011, plaintiff was provided with a certificate of disposition noting that the violation had been dismissed without prejudice.


Beck accuses defendants of "attempting to violate and remove [his] constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of press" and "bringing false charges." Compl. at 3. Liberally construing the complaint, he brings a single federal cause of action challenging the constitutionality of section 316.7.*fn2

In their motion, defendants argue that they are entitled to judgment on the pleadings because: (1) plaintiff only alleges that they "attempted" to violate his civil rights, which- defendants assert-does not state a claim for relief; (2) Morey and Coats are entitled to qualified immunity; and (3) plaintiff fails to identify a municipal policy, custom, or practice that caused his alleged constitutional harm. This last assertion is completely without merit as the heart of plaintiff's complaint is the constitutionality of a municipal ordinance and its enforcement by municipal officials. The Town is therefore subject to § 1983 liability. See Lusk v. Vill. of Cold Spring, 475 F.3d 480, 485 (2d Cir. 2007) (municipal ordinances constitute state action, and a cause of action may be brought against a municipality pursuant to § 1983 if an ordinance deprives its citizens of a constitutional right).

A. Judgment on the Pleadings-Legal Standard

The standard for granting a Rule 12(c) judgment on the pleadings is "identical" to that of a 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Patel v. Contemporary Classics of Beverly Hills, 259 F.3d 123, 126 (2d Cir. 2001). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555, 127 S. Ct. 1955, 1965 (2007). Although a complaint need only contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief" (Fed. R. Civ. P. 8(a)(2)), more than mere conclusions are required. Indeed, "[w]hile legal conclusions can provide the framework of a complaint, they must be supported by factual allegations." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679, 129 S. Ct. 1937, 1950 (2009). Dismissal is appropriate only where plaintiff has failed to provide some basis for the allegations that support the elements of his claims. See Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S. Ct. at 1974 (requiring "only enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face").

When considering a motion to dismiss, the complaint is to be construed liberally, and all reasonable inferences must be drawn in the plaintiff's favor. Chambers v. Time Warner, Inc., 282 F.3d 147, 152 (2d Cir. 2002). These pleading requirements apply to pro se plaintiffs as well as plaintiffs represented by counsel. Wynder v. McMahon, 360 F.3d 73, 79 n.11 (2d Cir. 2004). However, particular deference should be given to a pro selitigant's complaint when applying the above standard. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S. Ct. 2197, 2200 (2007).

Finally, a district court may consider documents attached to the complaint as exhibits or incorporated by reference therein. DiFolco v. MSNBC Cable L.L.C., 622 F.3d 104, 111 (2d Cir. 2010). Even if a document is not incorporated by specific reference, a court may nevertheless consider it "where the complaint relies heavily upon its terms and effect, thereby rendering the document integral to the complaint." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted). However, even if the document is integral, "it must be clear on the record that no dispute exists regarding the authenticity or accuracy of the document." Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Beck did not attach any documents to his complaint. However, he references several documents that are integral to his claims. These documents include: an August 4, 2009, letter from Coats; the June 10, 2010, notice of code violation; the July 21, 2010, summons to appear in the Town court; a January 27, 2011, bench trial notice; and the March 29, 2011, certificate of disposition. Beck filed these documents as a "Response" to defendants' answer. Dkt. No. 14. He also submitted numerous photographs of the signs on his property. Id. at 24--29. Defendants do not ...

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