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Baldwin v. Town of West Tisbury

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

September 7, 2017

BENOIT BALDWIN, Plaintiff
v.
TOWN OF WEST TISBURY, Defendant No.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER ON MOTION TO DISMISS

          ALLISON D. BURROUGHS U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Benoit Baldwin (“Plaintiff”) filed suit alleging violations of his equal protection and due process rights as a result of Defendant Town of West Tisbury's (“Defendant” or the “Town”) enforcement of its regulatory framework against him and his taxicab company and not against transportation network companies (“TNCs”), such as Uber and Lyft. [ECF No. 28]. Presently pending before the Court is Defendant's Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6). [ECF No. 29]. For the reasons set forth below, the Court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Defendant's motion.

         I. PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         On April 15, 2016, Plaintiff filed his original complaint seeking declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and monetary damages against the Town of West Tisbury, the Board of Selectmen of West Tisbury, Richard Knabel, Jeffrey Manter, Cynthia Mitchell, Town Administrator Jennifer Rand, and Chief of Police Daniel Rossi. [ECF No. 1]. On August 5, 2016, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts enacted a comprehensive statute regulating TNCs, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 159A1/2 (the “Act”), and shortly thereafter, on August 31, 2016, Defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that the Act preempted local laws that would regulate TNCs and taxis the same and therefore mooted Plaintiff's claims. [ECF No. 21, 22]. Plaintiff then filed a motion seeking permission to file an amended complaint [ECF No. 23], which the Court allowed on September 23, 2016 [ECF No. 25]. On November 22, 2016, Plaintiff amended his complaint, limiting his allegations to before August 5, 2016 (the date of the enactment of the Act). [ECF No. 28 (“Compl.”)]. On December 8, 2016, Defendant again moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. [ECF Nos. 29, 30]. On December 22, 2016, Plaintiff filed a memorandum in opposition to the motion in part.[1] [ECF No. 31].

         II. ALLEGATIONS IN THE AMENDED COMPLAINT

         Plaintiff is the co-owner and operator of Alpha Taxi, LLC, which is a taxi service that is licensed by Defendant, on the island of Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts. Compl. ¶ 3. On or about April 15, 2015, Plaintiff learned that an Uber driver was operating in the Town without a license under the Town's taxi regulations. Compl. ¶ 5, 22, 23. In May 2016, a Lyft driver also began operating on Martha's Vineyard. Id. ¶ 6. Plaintiff alleges that the Lyft and Uber drivers are “engaged in the same exact service” as Plaintiff and his taxicab company. Id. ¶¶ 5-6. During the entire relevant time period, the Town enforced taxi regulations against Plaintiff and his company, but not against the TNCs. Id. ¶ 10. These regulations required that taxicab drivers have valid permits, owner's certificates, and be licensed with the Town's police department. Id. ¶ 7. A “taxicab” was defined as “[a]ny motor vehicle with a valid permit used or intended for use in the conveyance of persons for hire from place to place.” Compl. ¶ 18.

         Upon learning about the Uber driver in April 2015, Plaintiff filed a complaint with the Town's Administrator and with the Chief of Police seeking enforcement of the Town's taxi regulations against Uber and its driver. Id. ¶¶ 24-26. The Town's Board of Selectmen then placed the issue on its agenda for the weekly meeting on April 29, 2015, which Plaintiff attended. Id. ¶¶ 27, 29. At the meeting, the Board explained that, according to the Town's Counsel, the Town's taxi regulations did not apply to Uber. Id. ¶ 28. Plaintiff alleges that, at this meeting, he made it clear that he did not think that the Town Counsel's verbal opinion was sufficient to address his concerns and requested a copy of the opinion, which he received on May 11, 2015. Id. ¶¶ 29-30. Dissatisfied with the opinion, Plaintiff again requested that his complaint be placed on the next available meeting agenda. Id. ¶¶ 30-32. Although Plaintiff's request to be heard was not posted as a discussion topic on the agenda for the meeting, the Board deliberated and declined to hear Plaintiff's complaint again. Id. ¶¶ 33-35. On May 21, 2015, the Town Administrator subsequently e-mailed Plaintiff denying his request, and stating that any responses to the Town Counsel's opinion should be submitted in writing. Id. ¶ 35.

         In May 2015, Plaintiff implemented an electronic hailing system for his taxicab service that allowed real-time booking and payment by credit card through various smartphone apps. Id. ¶¶ 36-37. Plaintiff alleges that this system “eras[ed] any difference” between his taxi service and TNCs. Id. ¶ 37. He further alleges that there was no rational basis for the disparate treatment of his taxicab and TNCs, like Lyft and Uber, prior to August 5, 2016.[2]

         Based on these facts, Plaintiff alleges violations of the Equal Protection Clause (Count I) and the Due Process Clause (Count II) of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The complaint requests monetary damages only.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         In evaluating a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), the Court must accept as true all well-pleaded facts, analyze those facts in the light most hospitable to Plaintiff's theory, and draw all reasonable inferences from those facts in favor of Plaintiff. U.S. ex rel. Hutcheson v. Blackstone Med. Inc., 647 F.3d 377, 383 (1st Cir. 2011). To avoid dismissal, a complaint must set forth “more than labels and conclusions, ” Bell Atl. Co. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007), and must include “factual allegations, either direct or inferential, respecting each material element necessary to sustain recovery under some actionable legal theory, ” Gagliardi v. Sullivan, 513 F.3d 301, 305 (1st Cir. 2008) (internal quotations and citation omitted).

         The facts alleged, when taken together, must be sufficient to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” A.G. ex rel. Maddox v. Elsevier, Inc., 732 F.3d 77, 80 (1st Cir. 2013) (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). The plausibility standard invites a two-step analysis. Id. “At the first step, the court ‘must separate the complaint's factual allegations (which must be accepted as true) from its conclusory legal allegations (which need not be credited).'” Id. (quoting Morales-Cruz v. Univ. of P.R., 676 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir. 2012)). “At the second step, the court must determine whether the remaining factual content allows a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (internal quotations and citation omitted). “[T]he combined allegations, taken as true, must state a plausible, not a merely conceivable, case for relief.” Sepulveda-Villarini v. Dep't of Educ. of P.R., 628 F.3d 25, 29 (1st Cir. 2010).

         The Court will construe Baldwin's allegations liberally because he is proceeding pro se, Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007), however, the Court need not credit conclusory assertions or subjective characterizations. Barrington Cove Ltd. P'ship v. R.I. Hous. & Mortg. Fin. Corp., 246 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2001). Dismissal of a pro se complaint is appropriate when the complaint fails to state an actionable claim. Muller v. Bedford VA Hosp., No. ...


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