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Renaud v. Raimondo

Superior Court of Rhode Island

November 18, 2016

RONALD N. RENAUD, Plaintiff,
v.
GINA RAIMONDO, Alias, individually and in her Capacity as Governor of the State of Rhode Island; MICHAEL DIBIASE, Alias, individually and in his Capacity as Director, Department of Administration of the State of Rhode Island; and THE STATE OF RHODE ISLAND, Defendants.

         Providence County Superior Court

          For Plaintiff: Gerard M. DeCelles, Esq.

          For Defendant: Chrisanne E. Wyrzykowski, Esq. Jennifer S. Sternick, Esq.

          DECISION

          SILVERSTEIN, J.

         Before the Court is the Defendants'-Gina Raimondo, individually and in her capacity as Governor of the State of Rhode Island; Michael DiBiase, individually and in his capacity as Director of the Department of Administration of the State of Rhode Island; and the State of Rhode Island (Defendants)-Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff Ronald N. Renaud's (Renaud) First Amended Complaint pursuant to Rule 12 of the Rhode Island Superior Court Rules of Civil Procedure. The Court has jurisdiction pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14.

         I Facts and Travel

         In June of 2007, Renaud was hired as the Executive Director of the Department of Administration (DOA) of the State of Rhode Island. First Am. Compl. at 2, ¶ 1. As DOA's Executive Director, Renaud was a classified state employee with permanent status. Id. at ¶ 3. Renaud served as the DOA's Executive Director until March 20, 2015, when Defendant DiBiase informed him that his position had been abolished and he had been laid off. Id. at ¶ 5. On February 29, 2016, Renaud initiated this lawsuit asserting that he was unlawfully terminated.

         Following Renaud's initial Complaint in February of 2016, Defendants moved to dismiss. After several months, during which the parties engaged in considerable motion practice, Renaud filed his First Amended Complaint on September 1, 2016. Again, Defendants moved to dismiss. The Court heard arguments on the Motion to Dismiss the First Amended Complaint on October 5, 2016. After that hearing, the Court accepted supplemental memoranda from both parties.

         II Standard of Review

         "'[T]he sole function of a motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of the complaint.'" R.I. Emp't Sec. Alliance, Local 401 v. State, Dep't of Emp't & Training, 788 A.2d 465, 467 (R.I. 2002) (hereinafter R.I. Emp't) (per curiam) (alteration in original) (quoting R.I. Affiliate, ACLU v. Bernasconi, 557 A.2d 1232, 1232 (R.I. 1989)). In testing a complaint's sufficiency, the Court "'assumes the allegations contained in the complaint to be true and views the facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff[].'" Id. (quoting St. James Condo. Ass'n v. Lokey, 676 A.2d 1343, 1346 (R.I. 1996)). "[N]o complaint will be deemed insufficient unless it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff will be unable to prove his right to relief[.]" Bragg v. Warwick Shoppers World, Inc., 102 R.I. 8, 12, 227 A.2d 582, 584 (1967). Accordingly, a motion to dismiss "should not be granted 'unless it appears to a certainty that the plaintiff[] will not be entitled to relief under any set of facts which might be proved in support of [his] claim.'" R.I. Emp't, 788 A.2d at 467 (internal alterations omitted) (quoting St. James Condo Ass'n, 676 A.2d at 1346).

         III Discussion

         Renaud's primary claim in his First Amended Complaint is that he was wrongfully terminated due to his political affiliation. This claim is listed as part 7(a) of Count I in his First Amended Complaint. Defendants argue that the Court should dismiss Renaud's First Amended Complaint because of his failure to properly exhaust his administrative remedies under G.L. 1956 § 36-4-42, which pertains to state employees, such as Renaud, who allege discrimination on the basis of political beliefs. According to Defendants, Renaud's claim should first have been brought to the Personnel Appeal Board, not to this Court. Defendants contend that taking Renaud's allegations as true-specifically that he was laid off and his job was abolished due to his political affiliation-he failed to first exhaust his administrative remedies with the Personnel Appeal Board and that, as a result, this Court should dismiss Renaud's claim for wrongful termination.

         Renaud responds to this contention with two arguments. First, Renaud maintains that he did not have to bring his claim with the Personnel Appeal Board; doing so was permissive, he avers, not mandatory. Essentially, Renaud argues that after he was laid off he had two distinct options: appeal to the Personnel Appeal Board or bring suit in this Court. Renaud believes that is the case because § 36-4-42 provides that aggrieved state employees "may" appeal to the Personnel Appeal Board for relief. Defendants contend that the use of the word "may" does not allow Renaud to circumvent the Personnel Appeal Board.

         Second, Renaud asserts that he did not need to seek a remedy with the Personnel Appeal Board because doing so would have been futile. According to Renaud, appealing to the Personnel Appeal Board would have been futile because (a) the Personnel Appeal Board, which is comprised of members appointed by the Governor, was biased against him and would therefore be incapable of rendering an impartial decision in his favor and (b) the Personnel Appeal Board lacked the authority to restore Renaud to a position that had been abolished. In response, Defendants contend that the Personnel Appeal Board was perfectly capable of rendering a decision in Renaud's case. According to Defendants, the mere allegation of potential bias against a government board made up of appointees is insufficient to invoke the futility exception to the requirement that a plaintiff first exhaust his administrative remedies prior to seeking judicial relief. Moreover, Defendants argue that the Personnel Appeal Board is tasked with the authority to provide precisely the remedy Renaud sought.

         In addition to maintaining that he did not need to first seek a remedy with the Personnel Appeal Board, Renaud alleges myriad claims throughout his First Amended Complaint. Although divided into two counts that generally allege wrongful termination, Renaud's First Amended Complaint also contains allegations that Defendants violated numerous constitutional provisions. Specifically, in the introductory paragraph to his First Amended Complaint, Renaud states violations of the First, Sixth, and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution as well as violations of Article I, Sections 5, 21, and 24, Article II, Section 7, [1] and Article IX, Section 2 of the Rhode Island Constitution. With a passing reference to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Renaud appears to allege that Section 1983 is the mechanism that provides him with relief for the alleged violations of the federal constitution. These allegations all seem to be set alongside Count II of his First Amended Complaint, which generally alleges that Defendants violated Renaud's constitutional right to continued employment.

         Finally, in parts 7(b) through (d) of Count I, Renaud alleges various forms of a civil conspiracy. According to Renaud, Defendants conspired to lay him off and abolish the position of Executive Director based on his political affiliation.

         A Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

         Generally, "a plaintiff first must exhaust his administrative remedies before seeking judicial review of an administrative decision." Almeida v. Plasters' & Cement Masons' Local 40 Pension Fund, 722 A.2d 257, 259 (R.I. 1998) (per curiam) (citing Burns v. Sundlun, 617 A.2d 114, 117 (R.I. 1992)). "It is well settled that a plaintiff aggrieved by a state agency's action first must exhaust administrative remedies before bringing a claim in court." R.I. Emp't, 788 A.2d at 467. The exhaustion requirement "serves two purposes: '(1) it aids judicial review by allowing the parties and the agency to develop the facts of the case, and (2) it promotes judicial economy by avoiding needless repetition of administrative and ...


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