Grajales v. P.R. Ports Auth.

Citation682 F.3d 40,33 IER Cases 1665
Decision Date13 June 2012
Docket NumberNo. 11–1404.,11–1404.
PartiesDaniel GRAJALES et al., Plaintiffs, Appellants, v. PUERTO RICO PORTS AUTHORITY et al., Defendants, Appellees.
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (1st Circuit)


Eugenio W.A. Géigel–Simounet, with whom Géigel–Simounet Law Offices C.S.P. was on brief, for appellants.

José Vázquez García, with whom Maza & Green, P.S.C. was on brief, for appellee Puerto Rico Ports Authority.

Luis R. Román–Negrón, Acting Solicitor General, with whom Jeanette M. Collazo–Ortiz, Acting Deputy Solicitor General, Zaira Z. Girón–Anadón, Deputy Solicitor General, and Susana I. Peñagarícano–Brown, Assistant Solicitor General, were on brief, for individual appellees.

Before TORRUELLA, SELYA and LIPEZ, Circuit Judges.

SELYA, Circuit Judge.

This case requires us to revisit the plausibility threshold that a complaint must cross in order to survive a motion to dismiss. See, e.g., Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009); Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955, 167 L.Ed.2d 929 (2007). After careful consideration of a scumbled record, we reverse the judgment of dismissal and remand for further proceedings.


We briefly rehearse the background of the case, reserving salient details for our discussion of the merits. Because this appeal follows the granting of a motion for judgment on the pleadings, we glean the facts from the operative pleading (in this instance, the second amended complaint). See R.G. Fin. Corp. v. Vergara–Nuñez, 446 F.3d 178, 182 (1st Cir.2006). For purposes of this appeal, we accept those facts as true.

At all times relevant hereto, plaintiff-appellant Daniel Grajales worked for the Puerto Rico Ports Authority (PRPA).1 On June 19, 2006, Fernando Bonilla, the PRPA's executive director, named the plaintiff to a trust position within the PRPA.2 At the time of his appointment, the Popular Democratic Party (PDP) held the reigns of power in Puerto Rico. In 2008, the plaintiff voluntarily resigned this post in order to accept a career position at the Luis Muñoz Marín International Airport in Carolina. Within a matter of months, he transferred to another career position as a security supervisor at the Aguadilla airport (a facility located in his hometown).

The PDP lost the general election held in November of 2008, and its main rival, the New Progressive Party (NPP), assumed office. In early 2009, the plaintiff began experiencing workplace harassment. Some of the most notable affronts included his banishment from the Aguadilla airport, his transfer to the Mercedita airport in Ponce (which was far from his home), the removal of his sidearm, a series of negative performance evaluations, and threats of suspension and termination. No legitimate reason supported any of these actions.

Dismayed by these events, the plaintiff sued the PRPA and six of his tormentors (defendants-appellees Alvaro Pilar–Vilagrán, Elmer Emeric, Carlos Travieso, Manuel Villazán Lig–Long, Gonzalo González–Santini, and Miguel Alcover). The centerpiece of his suit was a claim of political discrimination. This claim asserted in substance that the individual defendants had engaged in a campaign of harassment against him because of his ties to the PDP.

We fast-forward past a melange of discovery and other pretrial proceedings to the point at which the plaintiff filed his second amended complaint. After filing their answers, the defendants moved for judgment on the pleadings, arguing that the complaint failed, in the words of the Supreme Court, to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955) (internal quotation marks omitted). The district judge referred the motion to a magistrate judge, see28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B), who recommended granting it. On de novo review, the district judge accepted the recommendation and dismissed all of the plaintiff's federal claims with prejudice. For ease in exposition, we do not distinguish between the two judicial officers but take an institutional view and refer to the decision as that of the district court.

The district court concluded that the second amended complaint failed to cross the plausibility threshold because it did not allege sufficient facts to support a prima facie case of political discrimination. Grajales v. P.R. Ports Auth., No. 09–2075, 2011 WL 1742972, at *2–6 (D.P.R. Jan. 25, 2011). Specifically, the complaint failed to allege facts demonstrating that the defendants knew of the plaintiff's political affiliation. Id. at *2. Moreover, the plaintiff failed to demonstrate a “causal connection between the challenged employment action ... and any conduct protected by the First Amendment that would have amounted to political discrimination.” Id. at *3.

Elaborating further, the court noted that the only indication of political animus was the plaintiff's conclusory statement to that effect. See id. at *6. In the court's estimation, the facts alleged reflected no political undercurrents. See id. This timely appeal followed.


When, as now, a motion for judgment on the pleadings under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(c) is employed as a vehicle to test the plausibility of a complaint, it must be evaluated as if it were a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Remexcel Manag'l Consultants, Inc. v. Arlequín, 583 F.3d 45, 49 n. 3 (1st Cir.2009); Gray v. Evercore Restruc. L.L.C., 544 F.3d 320, 324 (1st Cir.2008); see alsoFed.R.Civ.P. 12(h)(2). It follows that the grant or denial of such a motion engenders de novo review. SEC v. Tambone, 597 F.3d 436, 441 (1st Cir.2010) (en banc). In conducting this review, we accept the truth of all well-pleaded facts and draw all reasonable inferences therefrom in the pleader's favor. Nisselson v. Lernout, 469 F.3d 143, 150 (1st Cir.2006). We may augment these facts and inferences with data points gleaned from documents incorporated by reference into the complaint, matters of public record, and facts susceptible to judicial notice.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir.2011).

It is a truism that a complaint need contain only “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Plausibility determinations must be evaluated in light of this truism. See Ocasio–Hernández v. Fortuño–Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 8 (1st Cir.2011). In order [t]o survive a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, the complaint must contain sufficient factual matter to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Katz v. Pershing, LLC, 672 F.3d 64, 72–73 (1st Cir.2012) (alterations and internal quotation marks omitted).

A determination of plausibility is “a context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679, 129 S.Ct. 1937. To cross the plausibility threshold a claim does not need to be probable, but it must give rise to more than a mere possibility of liability. Id. at 678, 129 S.Ct. 1937.

The plausibility standard implicates a two-step pavane. See id. at 678–79, 129 S.Ct. 1937. First, “the court must separate the complaint's factual allegations (which must be accepted as true) from its conclusory legal allegations (which need not be credited).” Morales–Cruz v. Univ. of P.R., 676 F.3d 220, 224 (1st Cir.2012). Second, the court must determine whether the factual content permits “the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (internal quotation marks omitted); see Sepúlveda–Villarini v. Dep't of Educ. of P.R., 628 F.3d 25, 29 (1st Cir.2010) (Souter, J.) (“The make-or-break standard ... is that the combined allegations, taken as true, must state a plausible, not a merely conceivable, case for relief.”).

Before us, the plaintiff focuses single-mindedly on the viability of his political discrimination claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.3 He marshals both procedural and substantive attacks on the district court's rejection of that claim. Procedurally, he contends that the district court abused its discretion when it entertained a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings, based on a supposed failure to state a plausible claim, after nine months of discovery. Substantively, he contends that, in all events, his second amended complaint states a plausible political discrimination claim.

An understanding of the travel of the case is needed to put the plaintiff's procedural contention into perspective. The plaintiff commenced suit on October 16, 2009. The defendants moved to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6). The district court did not rule on the motion but, rather, allowed the plaintiff to file an amended complaint. It then denied the defendants' Rule 12(b)(6) motion as “moot,” and the defendants proceeded to answer the amended complaint.

On April 22, 2010, the district court granted the plaintiff leave to amend yet again. Although the proposed second amended complaint (which was nearly identical to its predecessor) was attached to the motion for leave to amend, it was not formally docketed until September 27, 2010. The defendants served their answers in October and, on December 9, the individual defendants filed a Rule 12(c) motion. By then, both the deadline for filing a motion for judgment on the pleadings (May 7, 2010) and the discovery closure date (November 18, 2010) had passed.4 The court below nonetheless entertained the motion and granted it.

Under ordinary circumstances, a court may measure the plausibility of a complaint by means of a motion for judgment on the pleadings. See, e.g., Elena v. Municipality of San Juan, 677 F.3d 1, 3–4 & n. 6 (1st Cir.2012); Estate of Bennett v. Wainwright, 548 F.3d 155, 162–64 (1st Cir.2008); Pérez–Acevedo v. Rivero–Cubano, 520 F.3d 26, 29–31 (1st Cir.2008). We have not, however, spoken...

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