445 F.3d 50 (1st Cir. 2006), 05-1534, Aponte-Torres v. University of Puerto Rico

Docket Nº:05-1534.
Citation:445 F.3d 50
Party Name:Antonio APONTE-TORRES et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. UNIVERSITY OF PUERTO RICO et al., Defendants, Appellees.
Case Date:April 14, 2006
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the First Circuit
 
FREE EXCERPT

Page 50

445 F.3d 50 (1st Cir. 2006)

Antonio APONTE-TORRES et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants,

v.

UNIVERSITY OF PUERTO RICO et al., Defendants, Appellees.

No. 05-1534.

United States Court of Appeals, First Circuit.

April 14, 2006

Heard March 6, 2006.

APPEAL FROM THE UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT FOR THE DISTRICT OF PUERTO RICO, Hon. Juan M. Pérez-Giménez, U.S. District Judge

Page 51

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 52

[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

Page 53

Juan P. Rivera-Romn for appellants.

Roberto Ariel Fernndez, with whom José Luis Gonzlez-Castañer and Gonzlez-Castañer & Morales Cordero were on brief, for appellees.

Before Boudin, Chief Judge, Torruella and Selya, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

in this case, several employees of the University of Puerto Rico (U.P.R.) complain that their employer maintained "suspicious" files about their activities and used those files to inform employment decisions. The district court dismissed their action. After careful review, we conclude, as did the court below, that the plaintiffs' amended complaint fails to articulate a cognizable federal claim. We also conclude that the district court did not err either in denying the plaintiffs leave to file a second amended complaint or in staying discovery for a brief interval pending its decision on the defendants' dispositive motion. Consequently, we affirm.

I. THE FACTS ALLEGED

For reasons that shortly shall become apparent, we glean the relevant facts from the plaintiffs' amended complaint.

The fourteen plaintiffs are full-time employees at U.P.R.'s Mayaguez campus. Within the last decade, they all have worked in the Cooperative State Research Education and Extension Service, which is connected with U.P.R.'s College of Agricultural Science and, more particularly, its Agricultural Extension Service Program (AESP). The defendants include U.P.R. and its president, the Mayaguez campus and its chancellor, and the interim deans of both the College of Agricultural Science and the AESP.1 The individual defendants are sued in their official and personal capacities.

The plaintiffs allege in substance that the AESP has, for the last ten years, gathered information about eighty to ninety employees without their consent and "in a suspicious manner." The plaintiffs are part of that complement. Though saved, the information is not part of the plaintiffs' official personnel records.2 These "illegal files" have the ostensible purpose "of identifying and/or classifying plaintiffs based on their membership in" some unidentified "professional association[s]" and/or the plaintiffs' "expressions against the [d]efendants" (not otherwise described). The files supposedly "contain[] information about alleged complaints against [p]laintiffs" and have been "used to deny hiring [and] promotions," as well as to shape employment termination decisions.

II. TRAVEL OF THE CASE

The plaintiffs filed suit in the United States District Court for the District of

Page 54

Puerto Rico on December 16, 2002. The following April, the court held a status conference, arranged for the plaintiffs to inspect the "suspicious" files, and directed them to inform the court by the end of May whether they wished to continue prosecuting the case. On June 11, the plaintiffs stated that they had reviewed the files and wished to go forward. They proceeded to file an amended complaint.

The amended complaint supplemented the original complaint by confirming that the plaintiffs had accessed the files and adding some general allegations about their contents and use. Significantly, the amended complaint offered no specifics; for example, it neither limned any identified employment action nor related the files to the plaintiffs in any particularized way. After the defendants seasonably answered the amended complaint, the district court approved a discovery plan.

On July 9, 2004 — nine months after the filing of the amended complaint — the defendants moved to dismiss for, inter alia, failure to state an actionable claim. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Approximately one month later, they served the plaintiffs with hard copies of the disputed files. Then, on August 25, the defendants filed a motion to stay discovery. The plaintiffs opposed the motion to dismiss and sought leave to file a second amended complaint. Shortly thereafter, they filed an opposition to the requested stay of discovery.

On December 1, 2004, the district court stayed discovery pending a ruling on the motion to dismiss. It granted that motion on February 14, 2005. Treating the motion to dismiss as a motion for judgment on the pleadings, see Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) — apparently because the defendants already had answered the amended complaint — the court held that the plaintiffs had failed to state an actionable federal claim. The court simultaneously denied the plaintiffs' request to file a second amended complaint, reasoning that they had been "afforded discovery precisely to supplement their allegations and [had] failed to adequately do so"; thus, the court found "no reason [to] expend scarce judicial resources" in a situation in which the plaintiffs had "already twice failed to state a claim." This timely appeal followed.

III. ANALYSIS

In this venue, the plaintiffs challenge the dismissal of the amended complaint, the refusal to allow a second amended complaint, and the stay of discovery. We address these points sequentially.

A. Dismissal of the Action.

Because the defendants previously had answered the amended complaint, the district court appropriately treated their motion to dismiss as one for judgment on the pleadings. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c). This conversion does not affect our analysis inasmuch as the two motions are ordinarily accorded much the same treatment. See Collier v. City of Chicopee, 158 F.3d 601, 602 (1st Cir. 1998); Lanigan v. Vill. of E. Hazel Crest, 110 F.3d 467, 470 n.2 (7th Cir. 1997). We view the facts contained in the pleadings in the light most flattering to the nonmovants (here, the plaintiffs) and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in their favor. Rivera-Gomez v. de Castro, 843 F.2d 631, 635 (1st Cir. 1988). Like Rule 12(b)(6), Rule 12(c) does not allow for any resolution of contested facts; rather, a court may enter judgment on the pleadings only if the uncontested and properly considered facts conclusively establish the movant's entitlement to a favorable judgment. Rivera-Gomez, 843 F.2d at 635.

There is, of course, a modest difference between Rule 12(c) and Rule 12(b)(6) motions. A Rule 12(c) motion, unlike a Rule

Page 55

12(b)(6) motion, implicates the pleadings as a whole. See 5C Charles Alan Wright & Arthur R. Miller, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1368 (3d ed. 2004). Here, however, the parties agree that the source of the pertinent facts is the plaintiffs' amended complaint. We turn, then, to that document, affording the district court's assessment of it de novo review. See Gulf Coast Bank & Trust Co. v. Reder, 355 F.3d 35, 37 (1st Cir. 2004).

There is no heightened pleading standard in civil rights cases. Educadores Puertorriqueños en Acción v. Hernndez, 367 F.3d 61, 66-67 (1st Cir. 2004). Consequently, we ask whether the amended complaint satisfies the basic notice pleading requirements of the Civil Rules. See Centro Medico del Turabo, Inc. v. Feliciano de Melecio, 406 F.3d 1, 5 (1st Cir. 2005). To meet those requirements, a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader[s are] entitled to relief," Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2), and must "give the defendant[s] fair notice of what the plaintiff[s'] claim is and the grounds upon which it rests," Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47, 78 S.Ct. 99, 2 L.Ed.2d 80 (1957). For this purpose, we may draw upon documents annexed to the amended complaint or incorporated into it, as well as matters subject to judicial notice. Centro Medico, 406 F.3d at 5. We ought not, however, credit "bald assertions, unsupportable conclusions, periphrastic circumlocutions, and the like." Aulson v. Blanchard, 83 F.3d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1996).

In this instance, the plaintiffs shape their central cause of action around 42 U.S.C. § 1983. To state a viable section 1983 claim, a plaintiff first must identify "an act or omission undertaken under color of state law." Rogan v. City of Boston, 267 F.3d 24, 27 (1st Cir. 2001). That precondition is easily satisfied here: Puerto Rico is considered equivalent to a state for section 1983 purposes, Redondo-Borges v. U.S. Dep't of Hous. & Urban Dev., 421 F.3d 1, 7 (1st Cir. 2005), and the amended complaint alleges actions attributed to U.P.R. and its functionaries. Since the case law establishes that U.P.R. is an arm of the Commonwealth, see Pinto v. Universidad de P.R., 895 F.2d 18, 18 (1st Cir. 1990), the amended complaint adequately alleges state action.

The next precondition presents more of an obstacle. A plaintiff seeking to recover under section 1983 must allege what is colloquially known as "constitutional injury," that is, he or she must identify a deprivation of some federally secured right. Rogan, 267 F.3d at 27. In this case, the plaintiffs put forward three theories of constitutional injury. As we shall see, the same factual inadequacies plague them all.

1. The First Amendment Theory. Although not well elucidated in the amended complaint, the plaintiffs' First Amendment theory, read charitably, focuses on adverse employment actions that supposedly were taken in response to protected associations or expressions (as documented in the "suspicious" files). While it is beyond cavil "that a State may not discharge an employee on a basis that infringes that employee's constitutionally protected interest in freedom of speech," Rankin v. McPherson, 483 U.S. 378, 383, 107 S.Ct. 2891, 97 L.Ed.2d 315 (1987), the amended complaint does not sufficiently allege any such action here.

To state an actionable claim of...

To continue reading

FREE SIGN UP