614 F.3d 273 (6th Cir. 2010), 09-3287, Paige v. Coyner

Docket Nº:09-3287.
Citation:614 F.3d 273
Opinion Judge:RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.
Party Name:Martha PAIGE, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. Kimberly COYNER, In her individual and official capacities; Board of Commissioners, Warren County; Warren County Port Authority, Defendants-Appellees.
Attorney:Stephen A. Simon, Tobias, Kraus & Torchia, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Mark H. Troutman, Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, LLP, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellees. Stephen A. Simon, David Torchia, Tobias, Kraus & Torchia, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant. Mark H. Troutman, Steven G. LaForge, Isaac, B...
Judge Panel:Before: BOGGS and GILMAN, Circuit Judges; McCALLA, Chief District Judge.[*] GILMAN, J., delivered the opinion of the court. BOGGS, J. (pp. 284-85), delivered a separate concurring opinion. McCALLA, Chief D.J. (pp. 285-87), delivered a separate opinion concurring in the judgment. BOGGS, Circuit Ju...
Case Date:July 26, 2010
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit
 
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614 F.3d 273 (6th Cir. 2010)

Martha PAIGE, Plaintiff-Appellant,

v.

Kimberly COYNER, In her individual and official capacities; Board of Commissioners, Warren County; Warren County Port Authority, Defendants-Appellees.

No. 09-3287.

United States Court of Appeals, Sixth Circuit.

July 26, 2010

Argued: Jan. 15, 2010.

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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ARGUED:

Stephen A. Simon, Tobias, Kraus & Torchia, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant.

Mark H. Troutman, Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, LLP, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellees.

ON BRIEF:

Stephen A. Simon, David Torchia, Tobias, Kraus & Torchia, Cincinnati, Ohio, for Appellant.

Mark H. Troutman, Steven G. LaForge, Isaac, Brant, Ledman & Teetor, LLP, Columbus, Ohio, Vladimir P. Belo, Natalie Trishman Furniss, Bricker & Eckler, LLP, Columbus, Ohio, for Appellees.

Before: BOGGS and GILMAN, Circuit Judges; McCALLA, Chief District Judge.[*]

GILMAN, J., delivered the opinion of the court. BOGGS, J. (pp. 284-85), delivered a separate concurring opinion. McCALLA, Chief D.J. (pp. 285-87), delivered a separate opinion concurring in the judgment.

OPINION

RONALD LEE GILMAN, Circuit Judge.

Martha Paige sued a county official and two county entities pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which provides a cause of action against those who violate a person's constitutional rights while acting under color of state law. Paige alleged that after she raised concerns at a public hearing regarding a proposed interstate-highway project, the county official retaliated against Paige by calling her employer and saying false things about her speech. Because Paige's employer was involved in the development of commercial properties in the county, the employer allegedly fired Paige as a result of the county official's call. Paige contends that the county official intended this result when making the call, thereby violating Paige's First Amendment right of free speech.

One of the county entities filed a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. It argued that Paige had failed to state a claim for which relief can be granted because she did not allege any " state action" by her employer, as purportedly required under § 1983. The district court granted the motion and sua sponte dismissed the case against the remaining two defendants. For the reasons set forth below, we REVERSE the judgment of the district court and REMAND the case for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

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I. BACKGROUND

A. Factual background

Paige is a long-time resident of Warren County, Ohio, where she owns a large farm with her husband. In March 2002, she began working as an accountant for Bunnell Hill Development Company, which privately develops commercial properties in the area, including Warren County.

When Paige learned of a proposed road-construction project in 2005 that would interfere with her property, she and her neighbors attended several public meetings to oppose the project and to voice their opinions regarding Warren County's development plan. Paige was subsequently elected president of the Residents' Association of West Central Warren County (Residents' Association). Bunnell Hill was allegedly aware of Paige's " civic activities" and never objected to them.

On August 6, 2007, Paige attended a public meeting held by the Warren County Port Authority, which was established to encourage economic development in Warren County. She had concerns about a proposed interstate-highway project in nearby Monroe, Ohio for which the Port Authority would be a source of funds. Before the meeting started, Kimberly Coyner approached Paige. Coyner is Director of the Warren County Office of Economic Development and Executive Director of the Warren County Port Authority. When Coyner spoke to Paige, Coyner incorrectly identified Paige's employer as Henkle Schueler and Associates (a company affiliated with Bunnell Hill) and asked how long Paige had been employed there. Paige corrected Coyner and informed her that Paige had been working for Bunnell Hill for more than five years. No one else overheard this exchange between Paige and Coyner.

Once the meeting began, several residents spoke up about the proposed interstate project, including Paige. When Paige spoke, she identified herself as a resident of Warren County and as president of the Residents' Association. She alleges that at no time during her public comments did she identify herself as an employee of Bunnell Hill or " give any indication whatsoever that her remarks should be associated with anyone other than herself in her capacity as private citizen and president of the Residents' Association."

During her remarks, Paige briefly explained the concerns that some members of the Residents' Association had about the impact of the interstate project. At the close of her comments, Paige asked the Board " whether in analyzing a potential development project they should consider if the project benefits the residents of Warren County."

While Paige was speaking, she noticed Coyner's allegedly negative reaction to Paige's inquiry. The interstate project discussed at the meeting was the first project that Coyner had brought to the Port Authority for its consideration and was one of the first major projects that she had initiated as Director of the Warren County Office of Economic Development.

According to Paige, as part of " a plan to retaliate against Ms. Paige for the public comments she made at the hearing," Coyner called Bunnell Hill on August 13, 2007-one week after the hearing-and spoke with Greg Bartley, the Executive Vice President of Bunnell Hill. Coyner falsely told Bartley that Paige had publicly introduced herself at the Port Authority hearing as an employee of Bunnell Hill and had spoken negatively about the establishment of the Port Authority. Coyner then " sought clarification of Bunnell Hill's commitment to development in the region."

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Three days after the call, on August 16, 2007, Bunnell Hill management met with Paige and terminated her employment. To justify her termination, they specifically referenced Coyner's false allegation that Paige had used Bunnell Hill's name to oppose development at the public meeting of the Port Authority.

B. Procedural history

In August 2008, Paige filed her § 1983 complaint against Coyner in both her individual and official capacities, as well as against the Warren County Port Authority and the Warren County Board of Commissioners (the body that established the Port Authority). Paige also raised state-law claims of defamation and tortious interference with her employment relationship.

The Port Authority filed a motion to dismiss in September 2008, arguing that it was immune from liability for the state-law claims under Ohio law and that Paige's § 1983 claim was deficient because her alleged injury-the loss of her job-was caused by her private employer, not by anyone acting under color of state law. Paige conceded that her state-law claims against the Port Authority were barred, but otherwise opposed the motion.

In February 2009, the district court granted the Port Authority's motion to dismiss. It dismissed the state-law claims against the Port Authority under Ohio immunity law and the § 1983 claim against the Authority under federal law because Paige had not demonstrated that the actions of Bunnell Hill in firing her were attributable to the state. The court then sua sponte dismissed with prejudice all claims against both Coyner and the Board for the same reasons, except that it declined to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the state-law claims against Coyner in her individual capacity. These latter claims were dismissed without prejudice. Paige has timely appealed.

II. ANALYSIS

A. Standard of review

When deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure for failure to state a claim, the district court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff and must accept all the factual allegations contained in the complaint as true. Lambert v. Hartman, 517 F.3d 433, 439 (6th Cir.2008). In order to survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, Paige's complaint need contain only " enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." See Bell A. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). This court reviews de novo the district court's grant of such a motion. Lambert, 517 F.3d at 438-39.

B. Application of Blum v. Yaretsky

The crux of Paige's § 1983 claim is that Coyner, the Port Authority, and the Board retaliated against Paige for exercising her First Amendment rights by making false statements to her employer with the intent of having Paige fired. In order to succeed on a retaliation claim, a plaintiff such as Paige must establish the following elements:

(1) that the plaintiff was engaged in a constitutionally protected activity;

(2) that the defendant's adverse action caused the plaintiff to suffer an injury that would likely chill a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to engage in that activity; and (3) that the adverse action was motivated at least in part as a response to the exercise of the plaintiff's constitutional rights.

Bloch v. Ribar, 156 F.3d 673, 678 (6th Cir.1998); see also id. at 682, 687 (holding

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that a rape victim's § 1983 claim against the local sheriff for releasing confidential and personal details of her rape after she publicly criticized the sheriff's handling of the case could survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss).

There is, however, an...

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