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Malone v. Cherokee County

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Atlanta Division

February 9, 2018

MIKE MALONE, Plaintiff,
v.
CHEROKEE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          WILLIAM S. DUFFEY, JR. UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant Cherokee County's (“Cherokee County”) Motion to Dismiss [17], Defendants Jerry Cooper (“Cooper”), Tim Prather (“Prather”), and Lori Thompson's (“Thompson”) Motion to Dismiss [18], and Defendant Ashley Watson's (“Watson”) Motion to Dismiss [21]. Also before the Court is Cherokee County, Cooper, Prather, and Thompson's Motion to Stay Discovery and Rule 16 and 26 Proceedings [19], Watson's Motion to Stay Pre-Discovery Deadlines [27], and Plaintiff Mike Malone's (“Plaintiff”) Motion for Extension of Time [23].[1]

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Facts [2]

         Plaintiff, a certified firefighter, served with the Cherokee Fire Department for approximately twenty-six years. ([1] ¶ 12). Defendant Watson was also employed as a firefighter with the Cherokee Fire Department. (Id. ¶ 14). Plaintiff alleges that during Watson's time with the fire department, she was consistently absent from duty for alleged injuries or illnesses, and she was disciplined for excessive absences and abuse of sick leave. (Id. ¶¶ 15-16). At some point, Watson was ultimately terminated at the direction of Defendants Thompson, Prather, and Cooper.[3] (Id. ¶ 17). Plaintiff contends that, “[i]n an effort to regain her job, Defendant Watson conspired with Defendants Thompson, Prather, and Cooper, and an unidentified political group” and “[a]s part of the conspiracy, Defendant Watson made false and malicious claims against Plaintiff.” (Id. ¶¶ 18-19). Plaintiff further alleges that one of Watson's false claims was that Plaintiff engaged in sexual harassment of Watson, and that this claim was false and known to be false by Defendants. (Id. ¶¶ 20-21).

         Plaintiff alleges that an internal investigation was initiated as a result of the apparent false claims by Watson. (Id. ¶ 25). Plaintiff contends, however, that the “internal investigation was a farce” and the “internal affairs investigator was a friend of Watson” for approximately fifteen years. (Id.¶¶ 26-27). Plaintiff states that “[t]here was no real investigation and the results was [sic] predestined.” (Id. ¶ 28). Plaintiff complains that following the investigation, Watson was rehired, given a settlement, and allowed to retire, while Plaintiff was terminated based upon Watson's allegations. (Id. ¶¶ 29-30). Plaintiff states that he was terminated based on what “Defendants knew were the false accusations of Watson.” (Id. ¶ 30). Plaintiff alleges that he appealed his termination, but that he “was never given a fair and impartial appeal.” (Id. ¶¶ 32-34). Plaintiff states that, even if he were guilty of some of the claims by Watson, the Cherokee County personnel policies demanded a far less serious disciplinary action than termination. (Id. ¶¶ 35-36).

         B. Procedural History

         On May 9, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Complaint stating that “[t]his action is brought by Plaintiff for violations of his constitutional rights to Due Process and Equal Protection guaranteed under the IV th [sic] Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.” ([1] ¶ 1). Although unclear, Plaintiff's Complaint appears to assert two causes of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, including that (1) Defendants conspired to deprive Plaintiff of his constitutional rights to equal protection and due process and (2) Defendants knowingly prosecuted false charges against Plaintiff to justify the rehiring and benefits given to Watson and intentionally violated Cherokee County's policies concerning discipline and appeals. ([1] at ¶¶ 41-52). Plaintiff also alleges a state law claim that Defendant Watson knowingly made false statements about Plaintiff and are defamation per se. (Id. ¶¶ 53-57). Plaintiff seeks $2 million in compensatory damages, $2 million in punitive damages against the individual Defendants, and reasonable attorney fees and expenses. (Id. at 8-9).

         On July 10, 2017, each of the Defendants filed their respective Motions to Dismiss arguing essentially the same grounds for dismissal. Defendants collectively argue that (1) Plaintiff's Complaint is subject to dismissal as an impermissible shotgun pleading; (2) Plaintiff fails to state any claim for an equal protection violation; (3) Plaintiff fails to state a claim for any purported violation of due process; and (4) Plaintiff fails to state a claim for conspiracy under § 1983. (See generally [17.2], [18.1], [21]). Cherokee County argues that the Complaint fails to state a § 1983 claim for municipal liability, and the individual Defendants contend they are entitled to qualified immunity and any duplicative official capacity claims should be dismissed. ([17.2] at 21-25; [18.1] at 18-25; [21] at 17-21). Defendant Thompson argues she was not the final decision maker with regard to Plaintiff's termination. ([18.1] at 17-19). Defendant Watson separately argues that the Court should decline to exercise jurisdiction over Plaintiff's defamation claim brought under state law. ([21] at 22-25).

         On July 10, 2017, Defendants Cherokee County, Cooper, Prather, and Thompson filed a Motion to Stay Discovery and Rule 16 and 26 Proceedings. On July 24, 2017, Plaintiff filed his Motion for Extension of Time to respond to each of the three Motions to Dismiss.[4] On August 8, 2017, Defendant Watson filed her Motion to Stay Pre-Discovery Deadlines. Watson's Motion to Stay adopts by reference and joins in the other Defendants' earlier filed Motion to Stay Discovery and Rule 16 and 26 Proceedings. [5]

         II. DISCUSSION

         A. Legal Standard

         On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, the Court must “assume that the factual allegations in the complaint are true and give the plaintiff[] the benefit of reasonable factual inferences.” Wooten v. Quicken Loans, Inc., 626 F.3d 1187, 1196 (11th Cir. 2010). Although reasonable inferences are made in the plaintiff's favor, “‘unwarranted deductions of fact' are not admitted as true.” Aldana v. Del Monte Fresh Produce, N.A., 416 F.3d 1242, 1248 (11th Cir. 2005) (quoting S. Fla. Water Mgmt. Dist. v. Montalvo, 84 F.3d 402, 408 n.10 (11th Cir. 1996)). Similarly, the Court is not required to accept conclusory allegations and legal conclusions as true. See Am. Dental Ass'n v. Cigna Corp., 605 F.3d 1283, 1290 (11th Cir. 2010) (construing Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544 (2007)).

         “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.'” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570). Mere “labels and conclusions” are insufficient. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). This requires more than the “mere possibility of misconduct.” Am. Dental, 605 F.3d at 1290 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679). The well-pled allegations must “nudge[] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible.” Id. at 1289 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570).

         B. Analysis

         Plaintiff's Complaint asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that (1) Defendants conspired to deprive Plaintiff of his constitutional rights to equal protection and due process and (2) Defendants knowingly prosecuted false charges against Plaintiff to justify the rehiring and benefits given to Watson and intentionally violated Cherokee County's policies concerning discipline and appeals. ([1] at ¶¶ 41-52). Plaintiff also alleges a state law claim that Defendant Watson knowingly made false statements about Plaintiff and are defamation per se. (Id. ¶¶ 53-57).

         1. Impermissible ...


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