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Eaton v. Town of Townsend

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

March 6, 2019

ROBERT M. EATON, Plaintiff,


          Leo T. Sorokin United States District Judge

         Robert Eaton has sued the Town of Townsend, the Town Administrator (James Kreidler), and a member of the Board of Selectman (Gordon Clark) for claims arising out of his employment as the Townsend Police Chief. Doc. No. 22.[1] The defendants collectively moved to dismiss part of the Amended Complaint. Doc. No. 25. For the reasons set forth below, the motion to dismiss, Doc. No. 25, is ALLOWED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         I. FACTS[2]

         In March 2016, Robert Eaton was hired to be the Townsend Police Chief. Doc. No. 22 ¶ 5. He began his official duties on May 1, 2016. Id. ¶ 17. At all relevant times, James Kreidler was the Town Administrator for the Town of Townsend. Id. ¶ 3. Additionally, the Townsend Board of Selectmen (“BOS”), which is “the chief executive office of the Town of Townsend, ” was comprised of Gordon Clark, Cindy King, and Carolyn Smart. Id. ¶ 2.

         Eaton alleges that shortly after beginning his employment, “Defendants Clark and Kreidler sought to coerce Plaintiff Eaton to take adverse actions against certain current and former employees of the Townsend Police Department.” Id. ¶ 19. According to Eaton, these employment actions included demotions and denial of promotions for individuals with whom Kreidler and Clark had personal issues. Id. ¶¶ 20-21. At one point, Kreidler “told Plaintiff Eaton that his office was ‘bugged' and that another Selectwomen, [sic] Carolyn Smart, was reading Plaintiff Eaton's emails, ” which Eaton alleges “was made with the intent to threaten and intimidate” him. Id. ¶ 27. In August 2016, “Defendant Kreidler informed Plaintiff Eaton that the BOS was not satisfied with Plaintiff Eaton's job performance and that he probably would not make his probation period.” Id. ¶ 30. Eaton alleges this was done in retaliation for him “refusing to take improper action against past and present members of the Townsend Police Department as requested by Defendants Clark and Kreidler.” Id.

         On August 29, 2016, Eaton met with Smart. Id. ¶ 31. In this meeting, Eaton expressed his concerns that Kreidler had filed an unmerited complaint against an employee in an attempt to support Clark's personal vendetta. Id. During this meeting, Eaton also “asked Selectwoman Carolyn Smart whether the BOS was satisfied with his performance and she responded that she had no idea why Defendant Kreidler would have told Plaintiff Eaton that he wasn't likely to complete his probationary position.” Id. ¶ 32.

         In September, Eaton had a meeting with Clark and Kreidler. Id. ¶ 33. During this meeting, Clark and Kreidler again pressured Eaton to take adverse employment actions against various individuals and pressured him “to issue a derogatory and false press release regarding an investigation conducted by the prior Townsend Police Chief.” Id. ¶ 34. Eaton refused to comply with either of these demands. Id. ¶ 35. Clark then told Eaton that there was a “large ongoing investigation that is going to shake up the police department, ” which Eaton understood to be a threat. Id. At the end of this meeting, Eaton spoke to Clark alone. Id. ¶ 36. Eaton told Clark that the actions he had requested Eaton to take were improper, to which Clark “became irate.” Id. In November, Kreidler initiated an investigation of Eaton and the Townsend Police Department, alleging improper use of the Massachusetts Criminal Justice Information System (“CJIS”). Id. ¶ 38. Eaton alleges this investigation was initiated in retaliation for him “making various public statements and refusing to issue press releases.” Id.

         On November 19, 2016, Eaton spoke with Smart and “informed her that Defendant Kreidler had created a toxic work environment that was interfering with Plaintiff Eaton's work environment and was harming Plaintiff Eaton's health.” Id. ¶ 40. Eaton alleges that during that conversation, as well as on various other occasions, he “requested the reasonable accommodation that he not be required to communicate with Defendant Kreidler but rather that he report directly to the BOS.” Id. Plaintiff Eaton was never granted this accommodation. Id. ¶ 42. Shortly after the November 19 conversation, Kreidler became aware of the complaints and concerns expressed by Eaton to Smart. Id. ¶ 41. According to Eaton, “Defendant Kreidler's harassment towards Plaintiff Eaton noticeably increased” thereafter. Id. A few days later, on November 23, 2016, the BOS issued a press release which stated that Eaton had resigned as police chief and which contained the “false impression that the Townsend police officers were conducting unlawful background checks and that Plaintiff Eaton was covering it up.” Id. ¶ 44.

         On January 18, 2017, Eaton met with Smart and Kreidler. Id. ¶ 47. During this meeting, “Defendant Kreidler threatened Plaintiff Eaton, repeatedly stating that Plaintiff Eaton should be criminally charged and that if he had been Town Manager he would have already fired Plaintiff Eaton.” Id. At this meeting, “Selectwoman Carolyn Smart repeatedly stated that Plaintiff Eaton was acting ‘crazy.'” Id. ¶ 48. Kreidler also referred to Eaton “as being insane and stated that he had concerns regarding Plaintiff Eaton's emotional stability.” Id. ¶ 50.

         On February 8, 2017, “the Massachusetts Department of Criminal Justice Information Services issued a report finding that none of the Townsend Police Officers had violated the law, ” as they had been accused of doing by Kreidler in November. Id. ¶ 51. Two days later, on February 10, Eaton issued a press release publicizing the finding and noting that no police officers had violated the law. Id. ¶ 52. In this press release, Eaton also stated “that the BOS and Defendant Kreidler were engaged in a strategic assassination of the Townsend Police Department and the reputations of its officers.” Id. Eaton asserts in the complaint that he made the statement “as a citizen commenting on a matter of public concern and with the intent of correcting the false information that [had] been placed in the public domain by the BOS and Defendant Kreidler.” Id. ¶ 53. The press release was published on the Townsend Police Department Facebook page and is attached to the complaint. Id. ¶ 54.

         Immediately after he issued the press release, the BOS put Eaton on administrative leave. Id. ¶ 55. On February 13, 2017, Eaton was admitted to the hospital “for approximately two weeks and diagnosed with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (“PTSD”). Id. ¶ 56. Eaton states that “the worsening of [his] PTSD symptoms and his hospitalization were the direct result of the harassment and hostile work environment created by Defendants Clark and Kreidler and being placed on administrative leave.” Id. Eaton states that he “had first been diagnosed with PTSD in 2007 and began to suffer worsening PTSD symptoms in October 2016.” Id. ¶ 57. Eaton alleges that at the time he was hired, the BOS knew of his PTSD diagnosis because he disclosed it during a psychological evaluation completed as part of his hiring process. Id. ¶ 58. However, shortly after February 13, 2017, Eaton, through counsel, notified the Town that he had been hospitalized for PTSD. Id. ¶ 63.

         On April 6, 2017, Kreidler sent Eaton notice that the BOS would conduct a disciplinary hearing. Id. ¶ 64. The BOS held the hearing on April 21, 2017. Id. ¶ 65. Eaton “was undergoing outpatient treatment for his PTSD and appeared at the hearing against medical advice.” Id. ¶ 66. Both before and during the hearing, Eaton's counsel provided the BOS with letters from Eaton's doctors confirming that he “was being treated for PTSD and that he should not testify at his disciplinary hearing until approximately May 25, 2017.” Id. ¶ 67. At the hearing, “Eaton requested that the BOS continue the hearing until a date on or after May 25, 2017.” Id. ¶ 70. The BOS denied this request. Id. ¶ 73. Eaton alleges that had the hearing been continued, he would have been able to “personally participate in the hearing and to testify in his defense.” Id. ¶ 80. Eaton further alleges that the hearing was a “sham, ” given that the BOS circulated a draft of their Findings of Fact prior to the hearing and that at the end of the hearing, they voted unanimously to accept the Findings of Fact and terminate Eaton's employment without discussion. Id. ¶ 77-81.

         Eaton filed a charge of discrimination with the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (“MCAD”). Id. ¶ 84. He now alleges nine claims in the amended complaint: breach of contract (Count I), breach of good faith and fair dealing (Count II), federal and state claims for discrimination on the basis of his PTSD diagnosis (Counts III and IV), federal and state retaliation claims (Counts V and VI), federal and state civil rights violations (Counts VII and VIII), and intentional interference with contract or advantageous relationship (Count IX). Id. ¶¶ 85-128. Attached to the complaint, Eaton submitted his employment contract, a description of the job duties for the Townsend Chief of Police, the November 23 press release from the BOS, the February 10 press release from him, the notice of administrative leave he received from the BOS, the notice of the disciplinary hearing he received from the BOS, the Findings of Fact from his disciplinary hearing, his official notice of termination, and his MCAD complaint. Doc. No. 22-1.

         The defendants have collectively moved to dismiss part of the amended complaint. Doc. No. 25. They moved to dismiss three of the four possible theories of discrimination in Counts III and IV but concede that the amended complaint plausibly states a claim under one theory. Id. at 4-11. They also moved to dismiss both retaliation claims (Counts V and VI), both civil rights claims (Counts VII and VIII), and the intentional interference with contract or advantageous relationship claim (Count IX). Id. at 11-25. Eaton opposed. Doc. No. 32. The Court heard arguments from the parties on February 20, 2019.


         To survive a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a complaint “must provide fair notice to the defendants and state a facially plausible legal claim.” Ocasio-Hernandez v. Fortuno-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 12 (1st Cir. 2011). In other words, the 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) (quotation marks omitted); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a). “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.” Id. at 678 (citation omitted). “Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim for relief will . . . be a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Id. at 679 (citation omitted). This “highly deferential” standard of review “does not mean, however, that a court must (or should) accept every allegation made by the complainant, no matter how conclusory or generalized.” United States v. AVX Corp., 962 F.2d 108, 115 (1st Cir. 1992).


         A. Civil ...

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