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Munoz-Feliciano v. Monroe-Woodbury Central School District

United States District Court, S.D. New York

March 25, 2015

MONROE-WOODBURY CENTRAL SCHOOL DISTRICT, New York; DR. MICHAEL DIGERONIMO, in his capacity as President of the Board of Education of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District; EDWARD MEHRHOF, individually and in his capacity as Superintendent of the Monroe-Woodbury School District; JENNIFER TRUMPER, individually and in her capacity as Member of the Board of Education of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District; HUGH CAUTHERS, individually and in his capacity as Chief Information Officer of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District; JOHN DOES 1 THROUGH 10, individually and in their capacities as officials, agents, employees and/or administrators of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District and/or as present and/or former members of the Board of Education of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District; and JOHN DOES 11 THROUGH 20, individually and in their capacities as teachers, employees, and/or agents of the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District, Defendants.

Jimmy M. Santos, Law Offices of Jimmy M. Santos, PLLC, Cornwall, New York, Counsel for Plaintiffs,

Adam I. Kleinberg, Garry T. Stevens, Jr., Sokoloff Stern LLP, Carle Place, New York, Counsel for Defendants.


CATHY SEIBEL, District Judge.

Before this Court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss, (Doc. 23), Plaintiff's Cross-Motion to Amend her First Amended Complaint, (Doc. 26), and Plaintiff's Motion for Conference requesting oral argument on the pending motions, (Doc. 33). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion is GRANTED, and Plaintiff's motions are DENIED.

I. Background

The facts (although not the conclusions) of the First Amended Complaint ("AC"), (Doc. 15), are assumed to be true for purposes of these motions.

A. The Parties

1. Plaintiff

Plaintiff Clara Munoz-Feliciano is a resident within the Monroe-Woodbury Central School District (the "District"), in Orange County, New York. (AC ¶ 2.) From approximately 2008 until 2009, Plaintiff served as Vice President of the Special Education Parent Teacher Association ("SEPTA"), an organization that advocates on behalf of students with special needs who may be eligible to receive special education services. ( Id. ¶ 17.) In May 2012, Plaintiff ran unsuccessfully for a seat on the District Board of Education (the "District Board"). ( Id. ¶¶ 22, 29.)

2. Defendants

Defendant District is a municipal corporate subdivision of the State of New York. ( Id. ¶ 3.) In addition to the District, Plaintiff names as Defendants, in both their official and individual capacities, Michael DiGeronimo, President of the District Board; Edward Mehrhof, Superintendent of the District; Jennifer Trumper, a member of the District Board; Hugh Cauthers, Chief Information Officer ("CIO") of the District; John Does One through Ten (officials, agents, employees and/or administrators, and/or current or former members of the District Board); and John Does Eleven through Twenty (teachers, employees, and/or agents of the District). ( Id. ¶¶ 4-9.)

B. The Facts as Alleged in the Complaint

1. The Events Prior and Leading Up to the May 2012 Election

Plaintiff alleges that, during her tenure as Vice President of SEPTA, approximately 2008-2009, she voiced her concerns at various public meetings - with unspecified District administrators present - regarding the District's level of support and services for students with special needs. ( Id. ¶ 17.) Approximately two years later, in March or April of 2011, following the suicide of one or more District students, Plaintiff attended "one (1) or more Board [of Education] meetings" at which she advocated for the District's implementation of more effective suicide prevention and intervention programs. ( Id. ¶ 18.) Later, "[i]n or about May 2011, " Plaintiff attended a meeting sponsored by the District and a group called "For Those Who Care." At this meeting, Plaintiff voiced (1) concerns regarding the meeting format, which allegedly prohibited audience participation during the presentation, and (2) her opinion that the District's suicide prevention and intervention programs were inadequate for at-risk students. ( Id. ¶¶ 19-20). In attendance were an unidentified District principal, assistant principal and guidance counselor. ( Id. ¶ 19.) Plaintiff also, in various public forums and at unspecified times - but ending before May 12, 2012 - voiced her concerns that the District was not adequately addressing the issue of student bullying. ( Id. ¶ 21.) The Court will refer to these statements by Plaintiff, collectively, as the "Pre-Campaign Statements."

In approximately April or early May 2012, Plaintiff decided to run for a position on the District Board. ( Id. ¶ 22.) As part of her campaign platform, Plaintiff publicly announced: (1) "it is time to put the needs of the children first;" (2) "as Vice President of SEPTA in 2008, I understand the importance of children with special education needs and those of the gifted and talented;" and (3) with respect to [an audit report by the New York State Comptroller examining misappropriation of public funds], "I believe the trust that needs to be repaired can be addressed... through good communication and transparency by restoring partnership between community members, parents and students." ( Id. ) The Court will refer to these statements made by Plaintiff in relation to her 2012 campaign for District Board as the "Campaign Statements."

Prior to the Board election on May 15, 2012, allegedly as a result of Plaintiff's Campaign Statements and her Pre-Campaign Statements beginning in 2008, Defendants engaged in a purported "smear campaign" against not only Plaintiff, but two other candidates seeking positions on the District Board. ( Id. ¶ 23.) Plaintiff claims the "smear campaign" was conceived and implemented "with the approval, directive and/or direction of the [Defendants] and the use of District (public) resources/funds." ( Id. ¶ 24.) Plaintiff cites to four documents - three emails and one campaign flyer, all disseminated prior to the 2012 election - which she appears to identify as constituting the "smear campaign." ( See id. ¶¶ 23-26, Exs. A-C.) More than one month after the 2012 election, on June 21, 2012, these statements were re-published in "several news outlets." ( Id. ¶ 31.)

2. The Events After the May 2012 Election

Plaintiff, along with the two other candidates who Plaintiff claims were subjects of the "smear campaign, " lost the May 2012 election. ( Id. ¶ 29.) After her loss, Plaintiff alleges she was again subjected to retaliation for her Pre-Campaign and Campaign Statements when the District denied home schooling accommodations for Plaintiff's daughter, CLF, a District student. ( Id. ¶ 27.) Plaintiff further alleges that in retaliation for her Pre-Campaign and Campaign Statements, the District failed to discipline certain students who "committed assault and battery" against CLF. ( Id. ¶ 28.) Additionally, approximately one year after the election, on May 13, 2013 - allegedly in retaliation for the same Pre-Campaign and Campaign Statements - Defendant Cauthers, on behalf of Defendant Mehrhof, sent an email expressing Mehrhof's dismay about Plaintiff distributing campaign literature during a faculty-appreciation reception (the "Mehrhof Email"). ( Id. ¶ 32, Ex. D.)

C. The Present Action

Plaintiff filed this action on June 21, 2013. ( See Doc. 1.) After a pre-motion conference on December 20, 2013, she filed the AC on January 21, 2014, asserting claims for First Amendment retaliation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and for defamation under New York State law. On February 20, 2014, Defendants moved to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rules of Civil Procedure 12(b)(1) and 12(b)(6). (Doc. 23.) Defendants argue that Plaintiff fails to state a claim pursuant to Section 1983, and that Plaintiff's state-law claims are both procedurally barred and time-barred.

Plaintiff has filed a Cross-Motion to Amend her AC, (Doc. 26), to which she has attached her Proposed Amended Complaint ("PAC"), (Declaration of Jimmy M. Santos ("Santos Decl."), (Doc. 27), Ex. 1). Plaintiff was granted permission to file the motion because Defendants, in their Motion to Dismiss, raised a new ground for dismissal not mentioned in their pre-motion letter.

II. Discussion

A. Standard of Review

"To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). "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." Id. "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." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (alteration, citations, and internal quotation marks omitted). While Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8 "marks a notable and generous departure from the hyper-technical, code-pleading regime of a prior era, ... it does not unlock the doors of discovery for a plaintiff armed with nothing more than conclusions." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79.

In considering whether a complaint states a claim upon which relief can be granted, the court "begin[s] by identifying pleadings that, because they are no more than conclusions, are not entitled to the assumption of truth, " and then determines whether the remaining well-pleaded factual allegations, accepted as true, "plausibly give rise to an entitlement to relief." Id. at 679. Deciding whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief is "a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense." Id. "[W]here the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere ...

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