Francis v. Giacomelli

Decision Date02 December 2009
Docket NumberNo. 08-1908.,08-1908.
Citation588 F.3d 186
PartiesJoel FRANCIS; Anthony Romano; Kevin Clark, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Rodney GIACOMELLI; David Engel; Stephen McMahon; Carl Gutberlet; Ralph Tyler; Martin O'Malley, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit

Neal Marcellas Janey, Sr., Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellants. Kathryn Widmayer Sullivan, Baltimore City Department of Law, Baltimore, Maryland; Matthew Wade Nayden, Baltimore City Solicitor's Office, Baltimore, Maryland, for Appellees.

Before NIEMEYER and SHEDD, Circuit Judges, and MARK S. DAVIS, United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Virginia, sitting by designation.

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge NIEMEYER wrote the opinion, in which Judge SHEDD and Judge DAVIS joined.

OPINION

NIEMEYER, Circuit Judge:

In this appeal, we evaluate the legal sufficiency of a complaint, applying the standard articulated in Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007), and Ashcroft v. Iqbal, ___ U.S. ___, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009) — i.e., whether the complaint on its face states plausible claims upon which relief can be granted.

Following highly public exchanges between Baltimore City Mayor Martin O'Malley and Baltimore City Police Commissioner Kevin Clark about Clark's performance as Commissioner, Mayor O'Malley terminated Commissioner Clark's employment, as well as the employment of two of his top deputies, Joel Francis and Anthony Romano. Mayor O'Malley explained in a press conference that the eroding perception of Commissioner Clark's leadership had made it "impossible" for Clark to remain Commissioner. Implementing the termination, the Mayor and Baltimore City Solicitor Ralph Tyler dispatched members of the Baltimore Police Department to the Commissioner's offices to retrieve from the Commissioner and his deputies their badges, police identifications, firearms, computers, and other official property, and to escort them from the building.

Commissioner Clark promptly filed suit against Mayor O'Malley and the City Council of Baltimore in state court, seeking reinstatement and damages, based on an alleged violation of § 16-5(e) of the Code of Public Local Laws of Baltimore City (governing the removal of Police Commissioners) and breach of contract. The Maryland Court of Appeals ultimately concluded that, despite Commissioner Clark's contract with the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore, which authorized the Mayor to discharge the Commissioner without cause, Clark had not been discharged in accordance with Baltimore City Public Local Law, which required cause. See Mayor & City Council of Baltimore v. Clark, 404 Md. 13, 944 A.2d 1122 (2008).

In addition to his state suit, Commissioner Clark and his deputies commenced this action, alleging that the Mayor, the City Solicitor, and several members of the Baltimore City Police Department violated their constitutional rights by seizing property from the Commissioner and his deputies and by seizing them and removing them from Police Department offices. Commissioner Clark and his deputies alleged that the defendants' conduct amounted to unreasonable searches and seizures and to a deprivation of due process because they were not given notice and an opportunity to be heard before being removed from their positions. Finally, Commissioner Clark and Francis, who are African-American, alleged that their firings were racially motivated, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981.

By order dated July 16, 2008, the district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), ruling that the complaint did not state plausible claims for relief and that, with respect to Commissioner Clark's allegations that Mayor O'Malley denied Clark due process, the Mayor was entitled to qualified immunity.

Reviewing the district court's ruling de novo, we conclude that based on the facts alleged in the complaint — taken in context and as true — the complaint fails to articulate any claim for relief "that is plausible on its face." Iqbal, 129 S.Ct. at 1950 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955). We also conclude that Mayor O'Malley, against whom the allegations of due-process violations were directed, is entitled to qualified immunity. Accordingly, we affirm.

I

The facts in this case are stated in two pages of the complaint, but additional background facts and context are provided by further allegations sprinkled throughout the complaint, as well as by allegations of the same events made in the state court complaint. While we evaluate only the allegations of the complaint in this federal case when considering the district court's ruling dismissing it, we nonetheless understand them in the context of the facts alleged in the state court complaint and restated by the Maryland Court of Appeals in Clark, 404 Md. 13, 944 A.2d 1122, which the plaintiffs concede is the proper context in which to consider plaintiffs' allegations in this case. When questioned by the court during oral argument, plaintiffs' counsel agreed that the events described in the complaint were the same events underlying the state court litigation.

As background, Commissioner Clark alleged in state court that he was "induced" to leave his high-ranking and prestigious position as a Commander in the New York City Police Department to become the Baltimore City Police Commissioner. Clark entered into a contract with Baltimore City, entitled "Police Commissioner Memorandum of Understanding," which provided that he would hold his appointment for a term expiring June 30, 2008. He was thereafter confirmed as Police Commissioner by the Baltimore City Council. The Memorandum of Understanding between Commissioner Clark and Baltimore City provided:

Either party may terminate this contract at any time, by giving forty-five (45) days prior written notice to the other. Notwithstanding the above sentence the provisions of Section 2B [relating to additional compensation/severance pay] remain in force.

After Commissioner Clark took office, he and Mayor O'Malley exchanged letters and accusations relating to a domestic relations problem involving Commissioner Clark and Clark's internal investigation into Baltimore City Police Department activities, and the exchanges became public. Mayor O'Malley thereupon terminated Commissioner Clark's employment, and City Solicitor Tyler provided Clark with a letter of termination, dated November 10, 2004, which stated:

This notice is sent on behalf of the Mayor and City Council of Baltimore (the "City") pursuant to Sections 12 and 13 of the Memorandum of Understanding ("MOU") between you and the City dated February 19, 2003. This notice shall serve as the City's 45-day notice of termination of your employment. Thus, your employment shall terminate 45 days from today. However, as the Mayor announced this morning, you have been relieved of all official duties as of 8:30 a.m., November 10, 2004, and therefore, your further access, if any, to Police Department facilities, equipment, or documents will be subject to the specific, prior authorization of Acting or Interim Police Commissioner Hamm.

The complaint in this case focuses on the facts relating to how Mayor O'Malley effected Commissioner Clark's discharge. It alleges that members of the Baltimore City Police Department, "with the assistance of over 50 additional and heavily armed members of the [Baltimore City Police Department] including all S.W.A.T. Team members, broke into and entered, and directed other members of the [Baltimore City Police Department] to break into and enter, the executive offices of Clark, Francis and Romano on the premises of the [Baltimore City Police Department]. They ransacked desks, credenzas and file cabinets. They seized and removed files, papers, documents, computers and other personal property in the lawful possession and custody of Plaintiffs." The complaint also alleges that members of the Baltimore City Police Department seized the plaintiffs themselves, ordering them "to remove or surrender their weapons, badges, identification cards and other items of personal property lawfully in the possession of Plaintiffs during the periods of detention." Finally, the complaint alleges that these acts "were committed either on the instructions of defendants O'Malley and Tyler, or with the knowledge and consent of defendants O'Malley and Tyler, or were thereafter approved and ratified by defendants O'Malley and Tyler."

Resting on these factual allegations, the complaint purports to state four claims in four counts. Count I alleges that the plaintiffs' Fourth and Fourteenth Amendment rights were violated insofar as the searches of the plaintiffs' offices and the seizures of the plaintiffs and their personal property were not justified by any criminal charges or any warrant and were, therefore, unreasonable. In Count II, Clark and Francis, who are African-American, claim conclusorily that they were removed from their offices and terminated from their positions because of their race, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1981. Romano, who is white, is not a party to this count. In Count III, the plaintiffs complain that they were denied due process insofar as their employment was terminated without prior notice and a prior hearing. (Only Commissioner Clark appeals the dismissal of this claim.) Finally, in Count IV, the plaintiffs allege conclusorily that the defendants conspired to violate their civil rights based on the acts otherwise alleged, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985.

The district court granted the defendants' motion to dismiss, and this appeal followed.

II

Commissioner Clark and his deputies contend on appeal that the district court erred in granting the defendants' motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that such a motion must be denied unless "`it is clear that no relief...

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