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Guilbeault v. Palombo

Superior Court of Rhode Island

March 31, 2017

KAREN E. GUILBEAULT, Plaintiff,
v.
MARCO PALOMBO, JR., Individually, and in his capacity as Chief of the Cranston Police Department; JOHN SCHAFFRAN, Individually, and in his capacity as a member of the Cranston Police Department; ROBERT W. RYAN, Individually, and in his capacity as a member of the Cranston Police Department; RUSSELL HENRY, Individually, and in his capacity as a member of the Cranston Police Department; ALAN LOISELLE, Individually, and in his capacity as a member of the Cranston Police Department; STEPHEN ANTONUCCI, Individually; CARL ROBERT RICCI, Individually; VINCENT McATEER, Individually; ALLEN W. FUNG, Individually, and in his capacity as Mayor of Cranston; CITY OF CRANSTON by and through its Treasurer, DAVID CAPUANO; and John Doe, Alias, Defendants

          For Plaintiff: Stephen E. Breggia, Esq. Sonja L. Deyoe, Esq.

          For Defendant: William J. Conley, Jr., Esq.; Gina Lemay, Esq.; Jeffrey W. Kasle, Esq.; John L.P. Breguet, Esq.; Joseph V. Cavanagh, Esq.; John Tarantino, Esq.; Anthony M. Traini, Esq.; Joseph J. McGair, Esq.

          DECISION

          GIBNEY, P. JUDGE

         The Defendant, Stephen Antonucci (Defendant or Antonucci), brings this Super. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss against Plaintiff Karen E. Guilbeault (Plaintiff or Guilbeault) in lieu of answer to the Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint. The Defendant contends that this action brought against him in his individual capacity should be dismissed based on a defense of qualified immunity. The Plaintiff contends that she has met the required pleading standard in respect to each of her claims in order to survive a motion to dismiss. Further, the Plaintiff maintains that the Defendant cannot properly assert a qualified immunity defense, and therefore, the Defendant's motion should be denied. This Court exercises jurisdiction pursuant to G.L. 1956 § 8-2-14.

         I

         Facts and Travel

         The Plaintiff, a member of the Cranston Police Department (CPD), filed this action on May 3, 2013 against numerous defendants for claims of gender discrimination. On November 30, 2016, the Plaintiff amended her Complaint a second time to include the present Defendant. She asserted claims of gender discrimination and retaliation in violation of G.L. 1956 § 42-112-1, the Rhode Island Civil Rights Act (RICRA), and sought damages under 42 USC § 1983 (§ 1983) for the Defendant's actions taken in his individual capacity. The Plaintiff did not assert any claims under G.L. 1956 § 28-5-1, Rhode Island's Fair Employment Practices Act (RIFEPA), against the Defendant. The Plaintiff also named the Defendant solely in his individual capacity.

         The Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint, the operative complaint, alleges that the Defendant, in his individual capacity, participated in a retaliatory internal investigation against the Plaintiff brought after she filed the instant action alleging gender discrimination at the CPD. With respect to the present Defendant, the Plaintiff specifically alleges that Antonucci engaged in gender-based harassment against the Plaintiff that was hostile, abusive, severe, pervasive, and continuous and which deprived the Plaintiff of the right to work in a reasonable workplace environment free from gender-based harassment.

         The Plaintiff alleges in her Second Amended Complaint that on or about October 31, 2013, the Defendant-along with co-defendants-initiated an internal investigation against the Plaintiff, citing a violation of CPD rules. This violation allegedly stemmed from the Plaintiff's supervision of CPD Sgt. Josefson and the Plaintiff's suggestion to Sgt. Josefson that he document any incidents of discrimination in order to protect himself, after he reported that he was being discriminated against or was not being treated equally. The Plaintiff's alleged failure to report Sgt. Josefson's use of a taping device and the Plaintiff's alleged unauthorized recording of Major Schaffran served as the basis for the internal investigation against the Plaintiff.

         The Plaintiff contends in her Second Amended Complaint that while conducting this internal investigation, the Defendant knew that no one in the CPD was aware of any rule against recording fellow employees or the usage of taping devices. The Plaintiff maintains that earlier in December of 2012, the Defendant was directed by other members of the CPD to create a rule and regulation prohibiting members of the CPD from surreptitiously recording other employees. After doing so, the Plaintiff then alleges that the Defendant was specifically instructed not to disseminate the new policy amongst members of the CPD before conducting his internal investigation of the Plaintiff for violation of the unpublished rule.

         The Plaintiff alleges that this internal investigation led by the Defendant for violation of an unpublished rule was in retaliation for her filing claims of gender discrimination. She further asserts that this investigation violated her First Amendment right to free speech and constituted an attempt to delay the Plaintiff's promotion to Captain. On January 12, 2017, the Defendant filed his motion to dismiss, asserting a defense of qualified immunity against the Plaintiff's claims.

         II

         Parties' Arguments

         The Defendant asserts that the Plaintiff has not pled sufficient facts for her claims under RICRA and § 1983 in order to survive a motion to dismiss. Additionally, the Defendant maintains that the Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed because her allegations are not based on individual actions of the Defendant; rather, they are founded on the Defendant's actions which were taken in his official capacity as a member of the CPD. The Defendant argues that plaintiffs cannot seek recovery under § 1983 for actions of a defendant taken in an official, rather than in an individual, capacity.

         Additionally, the Defendant contends that the Plaintiff's claims should be dismissed based on a defense of qualified immunity. The Defendant argues a qualified immunity defense applies when a plaintiff fails to establish a constitutional violation and when the violation was not clearly established by law so that a reasonable person would know that he or she violated an individual's constitutional rights. The Defendant maintains that the Plaintiff's right to freedom of speech was not violated, and further, that the Defendant, acting as a reasonable person, was not aware of any violation because a right is not clearly established by law.

         The Plaintiff maintains that she has met her burden for pleadings in respect to both her gender discrimination and retaliation claim. The Plaintiff contends that she has provided sufficient specific factual allegations against the Defendant to survive a motion to dismiss. Further, she argues that her claims are properly based on the Defendant's actions which were taken in his individual capacity, and that she does not name the Defendant in his official capacity; rather, she alleges that the Defendant individually participated in a retaliation effort that was outside the scope of his authority as a member of the CPD.

          The Plaintiff contends that a defense of qualified immunity does not apply because she has alleged a proper constitutional violation of her First Amendment right to free speech. She argues that the filing of a gender discrimination claim is protected speech as a matter of public concern and that the Defendant attempted to chill her exercise of free speech when he engaged in a retaliatory investigation. Further, the Plaintiff contends that the law regarding her right to freedom of speech was clearly established at the time and that any reasonable defendant would know that a retaliatory investigation would violate such a right. Therefore, the Plaintiff maintains that the Defendant cannot assert a defense of qualified immunity and, as such, his motion to dismiss should be denied.

         III

         Standard of Review

         "The sole function of a motion to dismiss is to test the sufficiency of the complaint[.]" Palazzo v. Alves, 944 A.2d 144, 149 (R.I. 2008) (citations omitted). Looking at the four corners of a complaint, this Court examines the allegations in a plaintiff's complaint, assumes them to be true, and views them in a light most favorable to the plaintiff. Barrette v. Yakavonis, 966 A.2d 1231, 1234 (R.I. 2009). This Court is mindful of the policy to interpret the pleading rules liberally so that cases are not "disposed of summarily on arcane or technical grounds." Haley v. Town of Lincoln, 611 A.2d 845, 848 (R.I. 1992).

         The complaint need not include the precise legal theory upon which the claims are based or even the ultimate facts to be proven; all that is required is fair and adequate notice to the opposing party of the claims being asserted. Gardner v. Baird, 871 A.2d 949, 953 (R.I. 2005) (citations omitted); see also Berard v. Ryder Student Transp. Servs., Inc., 767 A.2d 81, 83-84 (R.I. 2001). Consequently, "[a] motion to dismiss is properly granted 'when it is clear beyond a reasonable doubt that the plaintiff would not be entitled to relief from the defendant under any set of facts that could be proven in support of the plaintiff's claim.'" Woonsocket Sch. Comm. v. Chafee, 89 A.3d 778, 787 (R.I. 2014) (quoting Mendes v. Factor, 41 A.3d 994, 1000 (R.I. 2012)); see also Goddard v. APG Sec.-RI, LLC, 134 A.3d 173, 175 (R.I. 2016).

         The Court in Jones v. State of R.I. discussed the standard for a court's consideration of a motion to dismiss on a § 1983 complaint. 724 F.Supp. 25, 31 (D.R.I. 1989). That Court stated that with respect to § 1983 pleadings:

"We require more than conclusions or subjective characterizations. We have insisted on at least the allegation of a minimal factual setting. It is not enough to allege a general scenario which could be dominated by unpleaded facts . . . Therefore, although we must ask whether the 'claim' put forth in the complaint is capable of being supported by any conceivable set of facts, we insist that the claim at least set forth minimal facts, not subjective characterizations, as to who did what to whom and why." Jones, 724 F.Supp. at 31 (citing Dewey v. Univ. of N.H., 694 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1982), cert. denied, 103 S.Ct. 2121 (1983)).

         IV

         Analysis

         A

         Sufficiency of the Pleadings

         The Defendant contends that the Plaintiff has not alleged sufficient facts in her Second Amended Complaint to support her claims of gender discrimination and retaliation under RICRA. The Defendant maintains that such facts are required at the pleading stage in order to survive a motion to dismiss. The Plaintiff contends that she has alleged sufficient factual allegations in her ...


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