Goad v. Mitchell

Decision Date25 July 2002
Docket NumberNo. 00-4245.,00-4245.
Citation297 F.3d 497
PartiesCarlos D. GOAD and Robert J. Wuchich, Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Betty MITCHELL, Jacqui Visintine, and M.A. Gilbert, Defendants-Appellees.
CourtU.S. Court of Appeals — Sixth Circuit

Alan S. Belkin (briefed), Diane M. Gonda, Alan Belkin Co., Cleveland, OH, for Plaintiffs-Appellants.

Jack W. Decker (argued and briefed), Office of the Attorney General, Employment Law Section, Columbus, OH, Margaret Telb DiSalle, Office of the Ohio Attorney General, Employment Law, Toledo, OH, for Defendants-Appellees.

Before: BOGGS and MOORE, Circuit Judges; RUSSELL, District Judge.*

OPINION

MOORE, Circuit Judge.

Plaintiffs-Appellants Carlos D. Goad and Robert J. Wuchich appeal the district court's grant of Defendants-Appellees' motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Goad and Wuchich, former Corrections Officers at the Mansfield Correctional Institution, filed a complaint against Defendants Appellees, officers of the Institution, alleging retaliatory action based on the exercise of Goad and Wuchich's First Amendment right to free speech in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. For the following reasons, we REVERSE the district court's grant of Defendants Appellees' motion to dismiss, and we REMAND for proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. BACKGROUND

Plaintiffs-Appellants Carlos D. Goad and Robert J. Wuchich ("plaintiffs") were employed as Corrections Officers in the mental health unit at the Mansfield Correctional Institution ("MANCI") in Mansfield, Ohio. On March 26, 1999, they filed a complaint in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Ohio pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Betty Mitchell, the Warden at MANCI, Jacqui Visintine, a Labor Relations Officer at MANCI, and M.A. Gilbert, an Ohio State Highway Patrol Trooper assigned to MANCI, ("defendants") had retaliated against them in violation of their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights.1 On April 30, 1999, the defendants filed an answer to the complaint, raising the affirmative defense of qualified immunity, and on May 28, 1999, the defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c). Stating that "[b]ecause their complaint fails to specify the content, context, and timing of their allegedly protected activities, this Court cannot assess whether the plaintiffs would be able to overcome the defense of qualified immunity," the district court on April 5, 2000 denied the defendants' motion for judgment on the pleadings and ordered the plaintiffs to file a more specific amended complaint. Joint Appendix ("J.A.") at 17 (Mem. and Order).

On April 28, 2000, the plaintiffs filed an amended complaint. The amended complaint listed eight instances of speech by the plaintiffs allegedly protected by the First Amendment; however, on appeal, the plaintiffs concede that six of the eight instances of speech are not constitutionally protected. Appellants' Br. at 9. The two remaining instances of speech were described in the amended complaint as follows:

b. On a yearly basis monitors appeared at the MANCI mental health unit to assess compliance with a consent decree. In both 1996 and 1997 Goad and Wuchich told these monitors that MANCI mental health officials were not conducting group sessions with inmates as required in the consent decree but that these MANCI mental health officials were preparing false and inaccurate documents to reflect full compliance with the consent decree;

. . .

h. Goad and Wuchich reported on multiple occasions that nurses in the mental health unit left medications unattended and neglected to remove keys from the locks of cell doors.

J.A. at 21-22 (Amended Compl.). After listing the instances of allegedly protected speech, the plaintiffs' amended complaint stated that "[b]eginning on or about April 15, 1998 and continuing to the present, Mitchell, Visintine and Gilbert, acting individually and in concert with one another have taken adverse and punitive actions against Goad and Wuchich in retaliation for the actions of Goad and Wuchich described above." J.A. at 23. According to the plaintiffs, such action included:

a. The initiation and pursuit by Mitchell and Visintine of improper and unwarranted disciplinary proceedings against Goad and Wuchich;

b. Mitchell, Visintine and Gilbert coerced MANCI employees to give false statements against Wuchich and Goad in order to substantiate disciplinary measures taken against Goad and Wuchich, and

c. Visintine and Gilbert filed improper criminal charges against Goad and Wuchich, and

d. Mitchell, Visintine and Gilbert openly disparaged Goad and Wuchich to other MANCI employees.

J.A. at 23. On May 17, 2000, the defendants moved to dismiss the plaintiffs' amended complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).

On September 19, 2000, the district court entered an order granting the defendants' motion to dismiss on the ground that the defendants were protected from the plaintiffs' suit by qualified immunity. Relying on Veney v. Hogan, 70 F.3d 917 (6th Cir.1995), the district court held that the plaintiffs failed to allege sufficient facts to satisfy the heightened pleading requirement that applies when defendants raise the affirmative defense of qualified immunity; even if all the facts alleged in the complaint were true, the plaintiffs would not be able to demonstrate that their constitutional rights had been violated by the defendants. In order to make a prima facie case of unconstitutional retaliation under the First Amendment, "a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) that [he] 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." Strouss v. Michigan Dep't of Corr., 250 F.3d 336, 345 (6th Cir.2001). The district court found that seven of the eight instances of speech listed in the plaintiffs' amended complaint lacked constitutional protection. And although the district court agreed with the plaintiffs that reporting MANCI's failure to comply with a consent decree to outside monitors would constitute constitutionally protected speech, the court concluded that the plaintiffs still would not be able to demonstrate that their constitutional rights were violated because they did not allege any facts linking the protected speech to the adverse action taken by MANCI officials against them. Goad and Wuchich filed a timely appeal.

II. ANALYSIS
A. Standard of Review

We review de novo a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Kostrzewa v. City of Troy, 247 F.3d 633, 638 (6th Cir.2001). In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, we treat all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true, and we will find dismissal proper only "if it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of its claims that would entitle it to relief[.]" Id. (quotation omitted).

B. Qualified Immunity and Heightened Pleading Requirements

In civil suits for money damages, government officials are entitled to qualified immunity for discretionary acts that do "not violate clearly established [federal] statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 638-39, 107 S.Ct. 3034, 97 L.Ed.2d 523 (1987); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982). Whether particular defendants are entitled to qualified immunity is a question to be resolved at the earliest possible stage of litigation. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 2156, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001). To determine if qualified immunity attaches, the Supreme Court has delineated a two-part, sequential analysis. Id. at 2156-57. First, we inquire whether, "[t]aken in the light most favorable to the party asserting the injury, do the facts alleged show the officer's conduct violated a constitutional right?" Id. at 2156. "If no constitutional right would have been violated were the allegations established, there is no necessity for further inquiries concerning qualified immunity." Id. "[I]f a violation could be made out on a favorable view of the parties' submissions, the next, sequential step is to ask whether the right was clearly established." Id.

In Veney v. Hogan, 70 F.3d 917 (6th Cir.1995), this court held that because qualified immunity is a "threshold" question for the district court, "[t]he trial court need not deny a defendant the right to qualified immunity simply because a complaint adequately alleges violation of clearly established law. Rather, a plaintiff must allege sufficient facts `to create a genuine issue as to whether the defendant in fact committed those acts.'" Veney, 70 F.3d at 920 (quoting Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985)). Under Veney, if a defendant raises the affirmative defense of qualified immunity, the plaintiff is required to respond to that defense by providing "specific, non-conclusory allegations of fact that will enable the district court to determine that those facts, if proved, will overcome the defense of qualified immunity." Id. at 922. "If this pleading burden is not carried by plaintiff in either the original complaint or by a pleading in response to defendant's assertion of the qualified immunity defense, dismissal is proper." Id. at 921. Because Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) only requires that a pleading set forth "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief," the decision in...

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