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Allen v. Town of East Longmeadow

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

February 9, 2018

TOWN OF EAST LONGMEADOW, CAPTAIN DOUGLAS MELLIS, Officially and Individually, SERGEANT PATRICK MANLEY, Officially And Individually, and JOHN DOES, Officially and Individually, Defendants


          KATHERINE A. ROBERTSON United States Magistrate Judge.

         I. Introduction

         Currently before the court is the motion of the defendants, the Town of East Longmeadow (“the Town”), Captain Douglas Mellis (“Mellis”), and Sergeant Patrick Manley (“Manley”) (collectively, “Defendants”) to dismiss federal and state law claims brought against them by the named plaintiffs, Amy Allen (“Plaintiff”) and her father, Robert Allen, [1] in connection with the preparation and subsequent release of records by the Town's Police Department that allegedly contained confidential personal information about Plaintiff and that painted her in a false light. Plaintiff claims principally that Defendants violated her rights when the Town's police department produced documents in its custody in response to a subpoena issued by the Massachusetts Family and Probate Court and served on the department on behalf of Plaintiff's former husband in a Family and Probate Court proceeding. Plaintiff's complaint, filed while she was self-represented, asserts federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“§ 1983”) for violations of her constitutionally protected right to equal protection (Count One) and of her rights to privacy, liberty, and to be free from unreasonable searches (Count Three), and state law claims of negligence in hiring and training against the Defendants under the Massachusetts Tort Claims Act, Mass. Gen. Laws ch. 258, § 2 (Counts One and Two).[2] Out of an abundance of caution, the court reads the complaint as also asserting a federal claim in Count Two against the Town for failure to train and supervise under § 1983. Defendants' motion to dismiss has been referred to the undersigned for report and recommendation (Dkt. No. 23). The court heard the parties at oral argument on October 24, 2017 (Dkt. No. 34) and hereby recommends that Defendants' motion be GRANTED. More specifically, the undersigned recommends that Plaintiff's federal claims in Counts One, Two, and Three be dismissed with prejudice, that the court decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's remaining state law negligence claims in Counts One and Two, dismissing those claims without prejudice, and that the case be closed on the court's docket.

         II. Facts Alleged in Plaintiff's Amended Complaint

         As background to her claims, Plaintiff's amended complaint alleges a history of contacts with the Town's police department. She, her then-husband, and their children moved to East Longmeadow in July 2007. She reached out to the police department almost immediately when she discovered that prescription medications she had shipped to her new home had not arrived. According to the amended complaint, this was the first of several dozen interactions she and other members of her family, including her ex-husband, would have with the Town's police department over the next six or seven years (Dkt. No. 19 at 6, ¶ 14).

         On or around November 15, 2008, Plaintiff reported an incident of physical abuse by her husband to the Town's police department. She obtained an abuse prevention order which remained in effect for some 22 months. She then filed for a divorce, which became final on February 25, 2011. Plaintiff and her children continued to occupy what had been the marital residence in East Longmeadow (id. at 6-7, ¶ 15). Plaintiff's former husband remarried. Shortly thereafter, his new wife obtained a harassment prevention order against Plaintiff from a court in a county adjoining Hampden County (id. at 7, ¶ 16). On February 6, 2013, Plaintiff's ex-husband and his new wife filed complaints with the Town's police department alleging that Plaintiff had violated the harassment prevention order. Police officers arrested Plaintiff without adequately investigating the allegations. The resulting charges against Plaintiff were dismissed on motion (id. at 8, ¶ 17).

         Several weeks after dismissal of the charges against Plaintiff, having been alerted to the problem by Plaintiff's children, Plaintiff's neighbor called the Town's police department and reported that Plaintiff was in her home unresponsive. Police officers responded, found her in distress on the floor, transported her to the hospital, and secured her home. When a case worker employed by the Department of Children and Families (“DCF”) arrived, a police officer escorted the DCF case worker into and through Plaintiff's home from which the DCF case worker removed personal items. Plaintiff's ex-husband was also permitted to enter the home. The police and the DCF case worker took pictures of the inside of the home. When Robert Allen complained to Manley about the police department's handling and investigation of this incident, Manley declined to take further action and told Robert Allen to ask the Massachusetts State Police (“MSP”) to look into the matter if he desired further action. At Robert Allen's prompting, the MSP did so, found no fault with the East Longmeadow police department's investigation, and declined any further involvement (id. at 8-10, ¶¶ 18-19).

         On or around July 22, 2013, Plaintiff called the Town's police department after she was assaulted in her home. An ensuing investigation by the Town's police department resulted in charges being brought against Plaintiff and the individual whom she claimed had assaulted her. According to the amended complaint, the charges against the other individual were dismissed but the prosecutor refused to dismiss the charges against Plaintiff because the Town's police department adamantly opposed dismissal (id. at 10-11, ¶¶ 21, 23). The amended complaint does not set forth the ultimate disposition of these charges against Plaintiff.

         On or about March 7, 2014, counsel for Plaintiff's ex-husband caused a subpoena duces tecum to be served on the Keeper of the Records for the East Longmeadow Police Department requiring the production in the Family and Probate Court, on March 11, 2014, of the following documents:

Any and all incident reports, arrest reports involving Amy Allen, DOB . . . or calls for service to . . . Avenue, East Longmeadow, MA between April 1, 2012 to present, including but not limited [to] report number 13-649OF, Date of Offense - 7/22/2013.

(Dkt. No. 21-1 at 25).[3] The Town's police department responded to the subpoena by “providing a wide range of documents, police reports, court records and other documents and information still unknown to Plaintiff” (Dkt. No. 19 at 11, ¶ 22). One of the documents provided in response to the subpoena “was a police report (and possibly the court documents associated with it) dealing with the incident of July 22-23, 2013” (id., ¶ 23). Another was the so-called “Mellis report” (id. at 12, ¶ 25). The amended complaint alleges that the Mellis report was a summary of numerous contacts between Plaintiff and the Town's police department that also contained brief descriptions and analyses of other events involving Plaintiff that were brought to the police department's attention by third parties. It includes a reference to the incident about which Robert Allen complained to the MSP. According to Plaintiff, the document “contains many self-serving and subjective statements which demonstrate a disdain for [Plaintiff] and question her veracity” (id. at 10, ¶ 20).

         The attorney for Plaintiff's ex-husband introduced the subpoenaed documents at a Family and Probate Court hearing (id. at 12, ¶ 25). When Defendants produced the documents, Plaintiff was employed as an adjunct professor at three community colleges. Within days of the documents' production, she was confronted by two of her employers about the contents of the documents and she was immediately suspended and subsequently had her employment terminated by these employers (id. at 12, ¶ 26). It is reasonable to infer that Plaintiff is alleging that the production of the documents in the pending Family Court matter contributed to a loss of the custody of her children, although this allegation is not clearly stated (id. at 4, ¶ 7).

         III. Discussion

         A. Standard of Review

         To survive a motion to dismiss, a “'complaint must contain enough factual material to raise a right to relief above the speculative level . . . and state a facially plausible legal claim, '” Guerra-Delgado v. Popular, Inc., 774 F.3d 776, 780 (1st Cir. 2014) (quoting Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011)), “accept[ing] as true well-pleaded facts in the complaint and draw[ing] all reasonable inferences in the pleader's favor. Id. (citing Tasker v. DHL Rev. Sav. Plan, 621 F.3d 34, 38 (1st Cir. 2010)). In resolving a motion to dismiss, the court employs a two-step approach. Medina-Velázquez v. Hernández-Gregorat, 767 F.3d 103, 108 (1st Cir. 2014) (citing Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 12).

First, [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).” A.G. ex. rel. Maddox v. Elsevier, Inc., 732 F.3d 77, 80 (1st Cir. 2013) (internal quotation marks omitted). Second, [the court] “must determine whether the remaining factual content allows a reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted).

Medina-Velázquez, 767 F.3d at 108. While “a complaint need not plead facts sufficient to make out a prima facie case or allege all facts necessary to succeed at trial, ” id. (citing Carrero-Ojeda v. Autoridad de Energía Eléctrica, 755 F.3d 711, 717-18 (1st Cir. 2014)), the elements of a prima facie case “form[] ‘part of the background against which a plausibility determination should be made.'” Id. (quoting Rodríguez-Reyes v. Molina-Rodríguez, 711 F.3d 49, 54 (1st Cir. 2013)). “An analysis of plausibility is ‘a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.'” Id. at 109 (quoting Grajales v. P.R. Ports Auth., 682 F.3d 40, 44 (1st Cir. 2012)). That said, “the court may not disregard properly pled factual allegations, ‘even if it strikes a savvy judge that actual proof of those facts is improbable.'” Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 12 (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556 (2007)). “[A] court [may not] attempt to forecast a plaintiff's likelihood of success on the merits; ‘a well-pleaded complaint may proceed even if … a recovery is very remote and unlikely.'” Id. at 12-13 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556).

         Because Plaintiff was self-represented when she filed the amended complaint, the court liberally construes her allegations. See Rodi v. Southern New England Sch. of Law, 389 F.3d 5, 13 (1st Cir. 2004) (citing Boivin v. Black, 225 F.3d 36, 43 (1st Cir. 2000)). Plaintiffs who represent themselves must, however, still comply with procedural rules and satisfy substantive requirements and “dismissal remains appropriate . . . when the complaint fails to even suggest an actionable claim.” Overton v. Torruella, 183 F.Supp.2d 295, 303 (D. Mass. 2001) (citing Lefebvre v. Comm'r Internal Rev., 830 F.2d 417, 419 (1st Cir. 1987)).

         B. Federal Claims

         “‘Section 1983 supplies a private right of action against a person who, under color of state law, deprives another of rights secured by the Constitution or by federal law.'” Santiago v. Puerto Rico, 655 F.3d 61, 68 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Redondo-Borges v. U.S. Dep't of HUD, 421 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2005)). A cause of action under § 1983 is comprised of two essential elements. First, because § 1983 does not reach private actions, Rodríguez-Garcia v. Dávila, 904 F.2d 90, 95 (1st Cir. 1990), a plaintiff must show “that the conduct complained of transpired under color of state law.” Santiago, 655 F.3d at 68 (citing Redondo-Borges, 421 F.3d at 7). Second, because “Section 1983 ‘is not itself a source of substantive rights, ' but merely provides ‘a method for vindicating federal rights elsewhere conferred, '” Albright v. Oliver, 510 U.S. 266, 270 (1994) (quoting Baker v. McCollan, 443 U.S. 137, 144 n.3 (1979)), a plaintiff must show “that a deprivation of federally secured rights ensued, ” Santiago, 655 F.3d at 68 (citing Redondo-Borges, 421 F.3d at 7). There is no dispute that Defendants qualify as state actors. Accordingly, the court turns to the question of whether Plaintiff has adequately alleged any deprivation by these Defendants of rights protected by federal statute or the United States Constitution.

         1. Equal Protection

         “Ordinarily, equal protection claims arise when a member of a protected class, such as a racial minority, is treated less advantageously than people outside the protected class.” Johnson v. Prospect Mountain JMA Sch. Dist. SAU 301, Civil No. 13-cv-207-LM, 2014 WL 2588952, at *3 (D.N.H. June 9, 2014). Because Plaintiff does not allege that she was treated differently based on a protected characteristic, her equal protection claim is most appropriately analyzed as a so-called class-of-one claim. See, e.g., Vill. of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 564 (2000); Middleboro Veterans' Outreach Ctr. Inc. v. Provencher, 502 Fed. App'x 8, 10 (1st Cir. 2013) (unpublished). “To plead a ‘class-of one' claim, [Plaintiff] must allege facts to establish that [she] was intentionally treated differently from others who were similarly situated without a rational basis and that the difference was ‘due to malicious or bad faith intent on the part of the defendants to injure [her].'” Pollard v. Georgetown Sch. Dist., 132 F.Supp.3d 208, 223 (D. Mass. 2015) (quoting Priolo v. Town of Kingston, 839 F.Supp.2d 454, 460 (D. Mass. 2012) (quoting Walsh v. Town of Lakeville, 431 F.Supp.2d 134, 145 (D. Mass. 2006) (internal quotation marks omitted))). Here, because the individual defendants have raised the defense of qualified immunity (Dkt. No. 21 at 9), Plaintiff bears the further “burden of showing that qualified immunity does not apply.” Sargent v. Town of Hudson, Civil No. 14-cv-509-AJ, 2017 WL 4355972, at *1, 6 (D.N.H. Sept. 27, 2017) (citing Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735 (2011); Mitchell v. Miller, 790 F.3d 73, 77 (1st Cir. 2015); Lopera v. Town of Coventry, 640 F.3d 388, 395-96 (1st Cir. 2011)) (“[W]hen a movant raises qualified immunity, the non-movant bears the burden of demonstrating that qualified immunity does not apply.”).

         To meet her burden on the question of qualified immunity, Plaintiff must show that Mellis and Manley “'violate[d] clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.'” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 ...

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