United States District Court, M.D. North Carolina
MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER
JAMES BEATY, District Judge.
This matter is currently before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss [Doc. #13], pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), filed by Defendants Town of Taylortown, Ulysses S.G. Barrett, Jr., James Lattimore Thompson, and Scirra Devaughn Johnson (collectively "Defendants"). The individual Defendants (Defendant Barrett, Defendant Thompson, and Defendant Johnson) are all sued in both their individual and official capacities. In the underlying action, Plaintiff Joseph Scott ("Plaintiff") brings eight claims in connection with his alleged wrongful termination. For the reasons discussed below, this Motion [Doc. #13] is granted in part and denied in part. Specifically, the Court will dismiss all of Plaintiff's claims except the procedural due process claim.
I. FACTUAL BACKGROUND
The factual allegations of Plaintiff's Complaint [Doc. #1], taken as true for purposes of Defendants' Motion to Dismiss [Doc. #13], allege that Plaintiff began working for the Taylortown Police Department ("the Department") on or about May 2007. In March 2010, Chief Damon Williams resigned as chief of police for the Department and appointed Plaintiff to serve as its interim chief of police until the vacancy for this position was filled.
Defendant Johnson, who also worked for the Department, stopped reporting to work shortly after Plaintiff's appointment as interim chief of police, but Defendant Johnson nevertheless continued to draw his regular monthly salary from Defendant Taylortown. Defendant Johnson was not on valid, legitimate, or recognized leave under the personnel policies of Defendant Taylortown. For these reasons, in a closed session meeting in May 2010, Plaintiff recommended to Defendant Taylortown's town council ("Taylortown council") that Defendant Johnson's employment be terminated. However, the Taylortown council decided not to issue any disciplinary sanction against Defendant Johnson.
Following this closed session meeting, Defendant Johnson began making false allegations of misconduct about Plaintiff to other council members in an effort to retaliate against Plaintiff. As a result of these allegations by Defendant Johnson, Defendant Barrett (mayor of Taylortown) and Defendant Thompson (councilmember and Defendant Taylortown's attorney) met with Plaintiff to interrogate him about Defendant Johnson's allegations, but found no evidence of misconduct by Plaintiff.
On September 20, 2010, the Taylortown council held a closed session meeting, in which Plaintiff was told that the council "wished to take the Police Department in a different direction" and that Plaintiff's services as interim chief of police were "no longer needed." (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 29.) At no point during this meeting was Plaintiff told that his employment was terminated or that he had engaged in any misconduct or inefficient work performance. Although Defendant Barrett informed Plaintiff at the meeting that the Taylortown council would provide Plaintiff with a "favorable letter of recommendation, " Plaintiff nonetheless assumed that he would be returning to his prior position as sergeant until he found other employment, because he did not receive a written notice of termination, as was Defendant Taylortown's previous practice upon termination. (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 31.)
On September 21, 2010, around 4:00 a.m., Plaintiff was awoken by persons banging on the front door of his residence, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. While the banging continued, Plaintiff received a call from a dispatcher informing him that officers from the Fayetteville Police Department were at his front door. When Plaintiff opened the front door to this banging, Defendant Johnson confronted Plaintiff, informing him that he, Defendant Johnson, was now the new police chief for Taylortown. Defendant Johnson also informed Plaintiff that he was there to "collect all of the police equipment that Taylortown had [ ] issued" to Plaintiff. (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 34.) Although Plaintiff was uncertain whether he had in fact been terminated, Plaintiff complied with Defendant Johnson's demands by giving Defendant Johnson his patrol car keys, gun, badge, vest, and other police equipment, and told Defendant Johnson that he would turn in his uniform later that day. Defendant Johnson and another Taylortown officer traveled in a Taylortown police vehicle with officers from the Fayetteville Police Department, in order to carry out this confrontation for the "sole purpose [of] causing Plaintiff mental anguish and humiliation." (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 38.)
Later that day, Plaintiff went to the Taylortown police station to return the remaining police equipment that had been issued to him and to meet with Defendant Thompson to talk about the pre-dawn confrontation and determine whether Plaintiff's employment was terminated. Defendant Thompson, a councilmember for the Taylortown council, responded by telling Plaintiff that he didn't "have time for this, " and refused to discuss the incident any further with Plaintiff. (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 41.) Because Defendant Thompson refused to discuss the issue with Plaintiff or otherwise take remedial action regarding Defendant Johnson's behavior, Plaintiff contends that Defendant Thompson ratified Defendant Johnson's actions, even if he and other town officials did not know ahead of time that the confrontation was going to take place.
In October 2010, Plaintiff met with Defendant Barrett, Defendant Thompson, and the town clerk. At this meeting, Plaintiff was informed that Defendant Johnson claimed that "something had happened" to the computer in the Department, that an order of supplies was missing, and that either Plaintiff or the former police chief had taken these items. (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 43.) These allegations were fabricated and made in an effort by Defendant Johnson to retaliate against Plaintiff. Furthermore, despite multiple requests by Plaintiff to return various personal items he left in his office to him, Defendant Taylortown has refused to return the items to Plaintiff. These items include a digital camera, Motorola earpiece and microphone, gang book for law enforcement, CD for learning Spanish, sunglasses, personal files and papers, NCAWARE training materials, GangNet training materials, and field training officer materials.
In addition, on or about September 21, 2010, Defendant Johnson, as an official representative of Defendant Taylortown, prepared an F-5B Report of Separation ("the F-5B") regarding Plaintiff's separation from employment with Taylortown. The F-5B falsely lists that Plaintiff was dismissed for "misconduct, " and falsely asserts that Plaintiff "destroyed Departmental Files need[ed] to operate the department after learning he was not selected to chief." (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 53.) At the time Defendant Johnson prepared this F-5B, he knew or should have known that such assertions of misconduct were false. The F-5B also indicates that Defendant Taylortown "would not consider this individual for reappointment" and "would not recommend employment elsewhere as a criminal justice officer." (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 55.) This F-5B was filed with the North Carolina Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission
Finally, Plaintiff has alleged that shortly after Plaintiff's termination, Defendants falsely reported to the local newspaper, The Pilot, that Plaintiff was fired from his job because of "misconduct." (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 50.) At the time of this false reporting, Defendants knew or should have known that such a statement was false, deceptive, and misleading. After receiving this false statement from Defendants about Plaintiff, Plaintiff alleges that The Pilot published an article on October 1, 2010, which falsely claimed that Plaintiff had been terminated by Taylortown for "misconduct." (Compl. [Doc. #1] ¶ 51.) Although Plaintiff alleges that this October 1, 2010 article states that Plaintiff was terminated for "misconduct, " Defendants have attached a copy of an article by The Pilot dated October 1, 2010, which does not mention misconduct-instead stating that "[n]o specific reasons were cited" as to Plaintiff's termination and that Defendant Barrett said "[w]e decided to go a different way." (Ex. A - Mot. to Dismiss Br. [Doc. #14-1], at 1.) Plaintiff does not dispute the authenticity of this article, nor does he contend that he references a different article published by The Pilot on October 1, 2010.
On September 20, 2013, Plaintiff filed this action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging eight claims against Defendants: (1) violation of procedural due process, (2) violation of substantive due process, (3) "retaliation for exercise of constitutional right, " (4) violation of equal protection, (5) wrongful termination, (6) tortious interference with contract, (7) invasion of privacy, and (8) civil conspiracy. Defendants have filed a Motion to Dismiss [Doc. #13], asking the Court to dismiss all of Plaintiffs' claims for failure to state a claim. This Motion is now ripe for review.
II. STANDARD OF REVIEW
In reviewing a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), the Fourth Circuit has directed that courts "take the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, ' but [they] need not accept the legal conclusions drawn from the facts, ' and [they] need not accept as true unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments.'" Giarratano v. Johnson , 521 F.3d 298, 302 (4th Cir. 2008) (quoting Eastern Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship , 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000)). "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, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (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 . (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). "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 . "Where a complaint pleads facts that are merely consistent with' a defendant's liability, it stops short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitlement to relief.'"" Id . (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 557, 127 S.Ct. 1955) (citations omitted). Thus, dismissal of a complaint is proper where a plaintiff's factual allegations fail to "produce an inference of liability strong enough to nudge the plaintiff's claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.'" Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc. , 591 F.3d 250, 256 (4th Cir. 2009) (quoting Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 683, 129 S.Ct. 1937).
Furthermore, the Court may consider the attachments to the Complaint or the Motion to Dismiss [Doc. #13] if they are incorporated by reference into the Complaint; otherwise, the Court may only consider evidence outside the pleadings if the Court converts the proceeding to one for summary judgment. Bailey v. Va. High School League, Inc., 488 F.App'x 714, 715-16 (4th Cir. 2012) ("In deciding whether a complaint will survive a motion to dismiss, a court evaluates the complaint and any documents attached or incorporated by reference[; h]owever, the district cannot go beyond these documents on a Rule 12(b)(6) motion without converting the motion into one for summary judgment." (citations omitted)); see Bala, 532 F.App'x at 334 ("The district court may go beyond the complaint and attached documents, which constitute the pleadings, ' in a Rule 12(b)(6) proceeding if the court converts the proceeding to one for summary judgment." (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d))). Therefore, the Court will consider Plaintiff's evidence of the F-5B attached to Plaintiff's Complaint. (Ex. A - ...