Isabella v. Town of Seekonk

Docket Number23-cv-10127-DJC
Decision Date15 January 2024
PartiesDEAN ISABELLA, Plaintiff, v. TOWN OF SEEKONK through its Treasurer CHRISTINE N. DEFONTES; and TOWN OF SEEKONK BOARD OF SELECTMEN through its Chairman, JUSTIN SULLIVAN, Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Massachusetts

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DEAN ISABELLA, Plaintiff,
v.

TOWN OF SEEKONK through its Treasurer CHRISTINE N. DEFONTES; and TOWN OF SEEKONK BOARD OF SELECTMEN through its Chairman, JUSTIN SULLIVAN, Defendants.

No. 23-cv-10127-DJC

United States District Court, D. Massachusetts

January 15, 2024


MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

Denise J. Casper United States District Judge

I. Introduction

Plaintiff Dean Isabella (“Isabella”) has sued the Town of Seekonk (the “Town”), through its Treasurer, and the Town's Board of Selectmen (the “Board”), through its Chairman, alleging violation of his federal constitutional rights (Counts I, III, IX) and seeking a declaratory judgment that his termination violated the Contracts Clause of the U.S. Constitution, Massachusetts Declaration of Rights and Mass. Gen. L. c. 41 § 97A (Counts II, IV, VIII, X). Isabella also seeks attorneys' fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988 for his federal constitutional claims (Count V) and asserts claims for breach of contract (Count VI) and of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing (Count VII). D. 5. Defendants have moved to dismiss all counts, D. 12, and Isabella has moved for leave to file a second amended complaint, D. 18. For the reasons stated below, the Court

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ALLOWS Defendants' motion to dismiss in part and DENIES it in part, D. 12, and DENIES Isabella's motion for leave to file a second amended complaint, D. 18.

II. Standard of Review

A. Failure to State a Claim

On a motion to dismiss pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6), the Court must determine if the facts alleged “plausibly narrate a claim for relief.” Germanowski v. Harris, 854 F.3d 68, 71 (1st Cir. 2017) (citation omitted). Reading the complaint “as a whole,” the Court must conduct a two-step, context-specific inquiry. Garda-Catalan v. United States, 734 F.3d 100, 103 (1st Cir. 2013). First, the Court must perform a close reading of the claim to distinguish the factual allegations from the conclusory legal allegations contained therein. Id. Factual allegations must be accepted as true, while conclusory legal allegations are not entitled credit. Id. Second, the Court must determine whether the factual allegations present a “reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Haley v. City of Boston, 657 F.3d 39, 46 (1st Cir. 2011) (quoting Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009)). In sum, the complaint must provide sufficient factual allegations for the Court to find the claim “plausible on its face.” Garda-Catalan, 734 F.3d at 103 (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678). On a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court may also consider documents incorporated into the complaint, as well as “documents the authenticity of which are not disputed by the parties,” “official public records,” “documents central to plaintiffs' claim” and “documents sufficiently referred to in the complaint.” Watterson v. Page, 987 F.2d 1, 3 (1st Cir. 1993).

B. Motion to Amend

Fed. R. Civ. P. 15(a) “mandates that leave to amend is to be ‘freely given when justice so requires' . . . unless the amendment ‘would be futile, or reward, inter alia, undue or intended delay.'” Steir v. Girl Scouts of the USA, 383 F.3d 7, 12 (1st Cir. 2004) (quoting Fed. R. Civ. P.

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15(a)(2); and then quoting Resol. Tr. Corp. v. Gold, 30 F.3d 251, 253 (1st Cir. 1994)). This “liberal amendment policy . . . does not mean that leave will be granted in all cases.” Acosta-Mestre v. Hilton Int'l of P.R., 156 F.3d 49, 51 (1st Cir. 1998) (quoting 6 Charles Alan Wright, Arthur R. Miller & Mary Kay Kane, Federal Practice and Procedure § 1487, at 611 (2d ed. 1990)). “[I]f the proposed amendment would be futile because, as thus amended, the complaint still fails to state a claim, the district court acts within its discretion in denying the motion to amend.” Abraham v. Woods Hole Oceanographic Inst., 553 F.3d 114, 117 (1st Cir. 2009) (alteration in original) (quoting Boston & Me. Corp. v. Hampton, 987 F.2d 855, 868 (1st Cir. 1993).

III. Factual Background

Except where otherwise noted, the following facts are drawn from Isabella's operative, first amended complaint, D. 5, and accepted as true for the purpose of resolving the motion to dismiss.

On December 2, 2020, the Town hired Isabella as Police Chief for a term of three years pursuant to a written agreement (the “Contract”). Id. ¶¶ 8, 10; D. 5-1. Under the terms of the Contract, which Isabella attached to his complaint, “the Town may, for just cause, discipline the Chief of Police, up to and including termination, and/or terminate its obligations under this contract.” D. 5-1 § 8A; see D. 5 ¶¶ 11. The Contract also provided Isabella with various rights as to any discipline imposed, including the right to appeal, the right to a public hearing before the Board and the right to be represented by counsel at such hearing. D. 5-1 § 8B. The Contract further states that “[t]he Chief's exclusive remedy to the Board of Selectmen's disciplinary decision shall be arbitration before an Arbitrator.” Id.

On January 5, 2023, Isabella was informed at a meeting with the Town Administrator that he was being placed on administrative leave and that the Board would meet on January 18, 2023 to rescind his appointment as Chief of Police. D. 5 ¶¶ 14-15. The Town Administrator stated that the reason for the termination was that “the Town wished to ‘proceed in a different direction.'” Id.

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¶ 16. On January 10, 2023, Isabella received a written notice from the Town Administrator to the same effect. Id. ¶¶ 17-19; D. 5-2. The notice further indicated that the Board was acting pursuant to the Town Charter, which stated that “[a]ll appointing authorities under this charter shall have the power to rescind appointments made by them . . . provided that the appointee shall first have been served with written notice of such intent of removal, and provided further that the appointee shall have the right to a public hearing on his removal.” Id. ¶ 20; D. 5-2 at 2; D. 5-3 Art. 1, § 9.

At the outset of January 18, 2023 hearing, the Board indicated that it was entitled by the Town Charter to terminate Isabella's employment, with or without cause. D. 5 ¶¶ 25-27 (alleging that Board presented no evidence of any misconduct by Isabella and did not discuss whether there was cause for his termination). Isabella testified as to various accomplishments and improvements that occurred under his leadership, D. 5 ¶¶ 28-29, and also his efforts to resolve staffing challenges faced by the police department, which he alleges were rejected by the Town. Id. ¶¶ 30-34. Members of the community made statements in support of Isabella's work as police chief. Id. ¶ 35. The Board voted unanimously to rescind Isabella's employment. Id. ¶ 36.

IV. Procedural History

Isabella filed this action on January 19, 2023, D. 1, and subsequently amended his complaint, D. 5. Defendants have now moved to dismiss all counts, D. 12, and Isabella has moved for leave to amend his complaint a second time, D. 18. The Court heard the parties on the pending motions and took the matters under advisement. D. 22.

V. Discussion

A. Failure to State a Claim

1. Breach of Contract (Count VI)

To succeed on its breach of contract claim, a plaintiff “must show (1) the existence of a valid contract; (2) that it has performed its obligations under the contract; and (3) a breach of the

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contract that causes damages.” Lombard Med. Techs., Inc. v. Johannessen, 729 F.Supp.2d 432, 438 (D. Mass. 2010) (citing Persson v. Scotia Prince Cruises, Ltd., 330 F.3d 28, 34 (1st Cir. 2003)). Here, Isabella alleges that the Town breached the Contract by terminating him without just cause. D. 5 ¶¶ 108-11. Isabella is correct that the plain language of the Contract, which is attached and incorporated into the complaint, D. 5-1, provides that the Town “may, for just cause, discipline [Isabella], up to and including termination.” Id. § 8A. Defendants seeks to dismiss the breach of contract claim, arguing that the Town Charter nullifies the just-cause provision in the Contract.

a) Whether the Town Charter Nullifies the Just-Cause Requirement

Specifically, Defendants contend that the Town Charter, which authorizes the appointing authorities “to rescind appointments made by them” supersedes and nullifies the Contract's provisions regarding discipline. D. 13 at 8, 10 (quoting D. 5-3 Art. 1 § 9). According to Defendants, under Mass. Gen. L. c. 41 § 108O, the Contract “prevail[s] over any conflicting provision of any local personnel by-law, ordinance, rule or regulation” but not over a municipal charter. D. 13 at 8-9 (quoting Mass. Gen. L. c. 41 § 108O). In support of this reading, Defendants assert that the Town has not adopted language in a December 7, 1995 amendment to § 108O, which explicitly provided that “[a]ny provisions of said [police chief's] contract shall prevail over the conflicting provisions of a city or town charter.” D. 13 at 22 (Section 2, 1995 Mass. Acts 1037). The amendment provide that this section shall take effect in a town “upon the approval of the board of selectman and upon approval by the majority of the voters” voting in the affirmative on adding this provision. Id. (Section 3, 1995 Mass. Acts 1037-38).

Even if the Town has not adopted the 1995 amendment as to Section 2, this Court does not construe § 108O to allow Defendants to ignore the terms of any police or fire chief contract which requires just cause for termination. Defendants' interpretation of the Town Charter and § 108O would call into question the validity of any employment contract between the Town and a police

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or fire chief. See Baltimore Teachers Union, Am. Fed'n of Tchrs. Loc. 340 v. Mayor of Baltimore, 6 F.3d 1012, 1016 n.5 (4th Cir. 1993)). The plain language of § 108O, as in effect even without Section 2, provides that a town contract “shall prevail over any conflicting provision of any personnel by-law, ordinance, rule or regulation.” Mass. Gen....

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