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Desjardins v. Willard

United States District Court, D. Maine

June 20, 2014

DANA DESJARDINS, Plaintiff,
v.
DONALD WILLARD and MICHAEL REYNOLDS, Defendants.

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

NANCY TORRESEN, District Judge.

The complaint brought by Plaintiff Dana Desjardins asserts claims against Defendant Donald Willard, Raymond's Town Manager, and Defendant Michael Reynolds, a Raymond Selectman, under both federal and Maine law. Pl.'s Compl. 3-21 (ECF Nos. 1-1, 1-2) (the "Complaint"). The Complaint claims that the Defendants falsely reported to the Cumberland County Sheriff's Department (the "Sheriff's Department") that Desjardins drives while intoxicated and shows up to public meetings drunk. Desjardins alleges that these statements damaged his reputation and led the Sheriff's Department to red-flag Desjardins and pull him over without cause. The Complaint asserts that Willard and Reynolds may be held liable under state tort law and 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and brings several subsidiary requests for relief. Before the Court are four motions: (1) Defendant Reynolds's motion to dismiss the Complaint for failure to state a claim under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 8) ("Reynolds's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion"); (2) Defendant Willard's Rule 12(b)(6) motion (ECF No. 7) ("Willard's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion"); (3) Defendant Reynolds's special motion to dismiss the Plaintiff's complaint under Maine's anti-SLAPP[1] statute, 14 M.R.S. § 556 (ECF No. 11) ("Reynolds's Special Motion"); and (4) Defendant Willard's special anti-SLAPP motion (ECF No. 12) ("Willard's Special Motion").

For the reasons stated below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART Reynolds's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion, GRANTS Willard's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion, and GRANTS IN PART Reynolds's Special Motion. This disposition effects the dismissal of all the claims against the Defendants, so the Court also DENIES AS MOOT the remainder of Reynolds's Special Motion and the entirety of Willard's Special Motion.

PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In August of 2013, the Plaintiff filed an eight-count complaint in Cumberland County Superior Court. In Counts I through IV, the Complaint alleges that the Defendants are liable under Maine law for defamation, negligent infliction of emotional distress, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and false light. In Count V, the Plaintiff seeks injunctive relief. In Count VI, the Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants are liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violating the Fourth Amendment's prohibition on unreasonable seizures and for violating a liberty interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. In Count VII, the Plaintiff seeks attorney's fees under 42 U.S.C. § 1988. In Count VIII, the Plaintiff seeks punitive damages.[2]

In September of 2013, the Defendants removed the action to this District and filed motions to dismiss all of the Plaintiff's claims under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). In October of 2013, the Plaintiff conceded that his negligent infliction of emotional distress and intentional infliction of emotional distress claims should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6).[3] Pl.'s Opp'n to Def. Reynolds's 12(b)(6) Mot. 19 (ECF No. 9). Thereafter, the Defendants filed special motions to dismiss all of the Plaintiff's claims under Maine's anti-SLAPP statute, 14 M.R.S. § 556, along with supporting affidavits and evidentiary exhibits. The Plaintiff opposed the Defendants' special motions and filed his own supporting affidavits and evidentiary exhibits.

THE RULE 12(b)(6) MOTIONS

In order to avoid unnecessarily applying Maine's anti-SLAPP statute, the interpretation of which remains a developing area of state law, the Court first analyzes the Defendants' regular motions to dismiss and proceeds to the Defendants' special motions to dismiss only with respect to the claims that survive.

I. Legal Standards

A. The Rule 12(b)(6) Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) permits a party to move to dismiss a complaint on the grounds that the plaintiff failed "to state a claim upon which relief can be granted." Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6) is warranted only if a complaint fails to meet the limited notice pleading requirement imposed by Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Ocasio-Hernández v. Fortuño-Burset, 640 F.3d 1, 11-12 (1st Cir. 2011).

Rule 8(a)(2) requires a civil complaint to contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). "A short and plain' statement needs only enough detail to provide a defendant with fair notice of what... the claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'" Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 12 (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)) (citations and quotation marks internal to Twombly omitted).

A court reviewing a motion to dismiss must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true and draw all plausible inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Gonzalez Figueora v. J.C. Penney P.R., Inc., 568 F.3d 313, 316 (1st Cir. 2009). However, a complaint cannot rest on a legal conclusion or generic "the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). It "must contain enough factual material to raise a right to relief above the speculative level....'" Ocasio-Hernández, 640 F.3d at 12 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555).

B. Watterson v. Page Exception

Generally, the court deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion may consider only the complaint and any exhibits incorporated into it by the plaintiff. Freeman v. Town of Hudson, 714 F.3d 29, 35-36 (1st Cir. 2013). However, in Watterson v. Page, 987 F.2d 1 (1st Cir. 1993), the First Circuit articulated a "narrow exception" to the general rule, under which courts considering a motion to dismiss may also consider documents that fit into any of the following categories: (1) "documents the authenticity of which are not disputed by the parties"; (2) "official public records, " Watterson, 987 F.2d at 3; and

(3) "document[s] integral to or explicitly relied upon in the complaint." Shaw v. Digital Equip. Corp., 82 F.3d 1194, 1220 (1st Cir. 1996) (cited by Trans-Spec Truck Serv., Inc. v. Caterpillar Inc., 524 F.3d 315 (1st Cir. 2008)); see also Beddall v. State St. Bank & Trust Co., 137 F.3d 12, 17 (1st Cir. 1998) ("When, as now, a complaint's factual allegations are expressly linked to-and admittedly dependent upon-a document (the authenticity of which is not challenged), that document effectively merges into the pleadings and the trial court can review it in deciding a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6)."). Accordingly, in Fudge v. Penthouse International, Ltd., 840 F.2d 1012 (1st Cir. 1988), the First Circuit concluded that a district court reviewing a motion to dismiss properly considered a copy of an allegedly libelous article appended to a motion to dismiss. Fudge, 840 F.2d at 1014-15. Likewise, in Curran v. Cousins, 509 F.3d 36 (1st Cir. 2007), a First Amendment retaliation case, the First Circuit concluded that a district court granting a Rule 12(c) motion for judgment on the pleadings properly considered a number of threatening statements the plaintiff posted to a message board which he described in his complaint but did not attach or incorporate. Id. at 41, 44 & n.5 (noting that Rule 12(c) standard is similar to Rule 12(b)(6) standard and applying Watterson v. Page exception).

In this case, the Complaint refers to a "series of emails" between the Defendants and the Sheriff's Department, which the Sheriff's Department turned over to the Plaintiff in response to a Freedom of Access request. Compl. ¶ 15. While the Complaint quotes and characterizes the emails liberally, the Plaintiff did not incorporate or attach them. However, the Defendants attached copies of the emails to their Rule 12(b)(6) motions, along with an affidavit attesting that they are the same series of emails the Sheriff's Department produced in response to the Plaintiff's Freedom of Access request. Attach. 2 to Reynolds's Rule 12(b)(6) Mot. (ECF No. 8-2) ("Sheriff's Dept. Emails") (also found at ECF Nos. 7-2, 11-3, 11-8, 12-2, & 12-9); Sept. 9, 2013 Aff. of Peter Nichols (ECF Nos. 7-1, 8-1). The Defendants ask the Court to consider the emails when deciding their Rule 12(b)(6) motions. Reynolds's Rule 12(b)(6) Mot. 9 n.4, Willard's Rule 12(b)(6) Mot. 8 n.5.

Application of the Watterson v. Page exception allows the Court to do so. First, the Plaintiff does not dispute the authenticity of the emails, either individually or as a whole. Second, to the extent the Plaintiff contends the emails are defamatory, the Court is in a position indistinguishable from that in Fudge v. Penthouse and Curran v. Cousins . Third, the Complaint expressly relies on the entire "series of emails" produced by the Sheriff's Department for critical factual allegations and inferences. See Compl. ¶ 15. Thus, the complaint's factual allegations are "expressly linked to" and "admittedly dependent upon" the emails. Beddall, 137 F.3d at 17.

II. Factual Background

The factual recitation below is constructed from the allegations in the Complaint and the emails with all plausible inferences drawn in the Plaintiff's favor, except that the Court draws on the actual emails[4] described above rather than rely solely on the Complaint's characterizations of them.

Dana Desjardins, the Plaintiff, is a long-time resident of the town of Raymond, Maine. Compl. ¶ 2. From the early 2000s through October of 2010, he served as a member of the town's selectboard. Compl. ¶ 2. He currently sits on the town's budget committee. Compl. ¶ 2.

Desjardins's rift with the Defendants, Raymond Town Manager Don Willard and Raymond Selectman Michael Reynolds, began when Desjardins was still a selectman. Compl. ¶ 16. In July of 2009, Desjardins suggested that the town terminate Willard's position as town manager. Compl. ¶ 16. Desjardins also raised questions about a land deal between the town and Reynolds. Compl. ¶ 17.

The events that led to this lawsuit began in early October of 2012. At that time, a detective at the Sheriff's Department advised Desjardins that the department had received email reports[5] that he had been seen "drinking and driving around Raymond on a regular basis." Compl. ¶ 5. The detective told Desjardins that as a result of the accusations, the Sheriff's Department had "red-flagged" him. Compl. ¶ 5. According to the Complaint, two officers have to be called to the scene of any incident involving a "red-flagged" individual. Compl. ¶ 6.

On Friday, December 14, 2012, Reynolds wrote the following email to Cumberland County Sheriff Kevin Joyce:

Dear Sheriff Joyce,
I would like to talk to you or a member of your management team about a possible public safety issue at or after the Raymond Selectboard meeting scheduled for January 8, 2013. There is no hurry but I did want to send this along before it slipped my mind during the holidays and then have to scramble as the meeting approached. I can be reached at home [home number] or on my cell [cell number].
Thanks for your consideration, Michael Reynolds Raymond Selectboard Member

Sheriff's Dep't Emails 3; Compl. ¶¶ 18-19.

The sheriff offered to call back over the weekend or on Monday. Sheriff's Dep't Emails 3; see also Compl. ¶ 18. "The topic doesn't involve Dana Desjardins by chance does it??" he also asked. Sheriff's Dep't Emails 3; see also Compl. ¶ 18. Reynolds responded, "Your detective skills are right on. Talk to you next week." Compl. ¶ 19; Sheriff's Dep't Emails 3.

Reynolds spoke to Sheriff Joyce by phone at some point in the following week and told him that Desjardins had attended several town meetings drunk. Compl. ¶ 20; see also Sheriff's Dep't Emails 4, 11. On December 21, 2012, Sheriff Joyce emailed one of his officers, Deputy Don Goulet, [6] to tell him that he had received "anonymous complaints" about Dana Desjardins driving drunk and continually showing up at selectboard meetings inebriated and smelling of alcohol. Compl. ¶¶ 20-21; Sheriff's Dep't Emails 4. The sheriff asked Deputy Goulet to assign an officer to look out for the same kind of behavior at the upcoming selectboard meeting. Compl. ¶ 21; Sheriff's Dep't Emails 4. Sheriff Joyce wrote Deputy Goulet again around noon on January 5, 2013 to remind him to have someone monitor the roads on the evening of selectboard meeting to check for erratic driving by Desjardins. Compl. ¶ 22; Sheriff's Dep't Emails 5.

Sheriff Joyce also forwarded Willard copies of both the emails he had written to Deputy Goulet. Sheriff's Dep't Emails 7; see also Compl. ¶¶ 22-24. Willard responded at about 4:30 p.m. on January 5, 2013 with the following message:

Thank you Kevin, there will be town staff in attendance to call in any observed behaviors or other signs that would indicate impairment.
Have a good weekend.
Don Willard Town Manager

Sheriff's Dep't Emails 7; see also Compl. ¶ 24.

Two days later, on the morning of January 7, 2013, Reynolds emailed Sheriff Joyce to remind him about the upcoming meeting:

Hi Sheriff Joyce,
Thanks again for your time on the phone before the holidays. Wanted to send alon[g] this note to let you know our next board meeting is tomorrow, Tue the 8th at 7pm. If there is a deputy available to stop by that would be great. I will also have the non-emergency dispatch # ready to call if I have solid information of a public safety issue.
Thanks
Mike Reynolds

Sheriff's Dep't Emails 11; see also Compl. ¶ 25.

Sheriff Joyce responded at around noon. Compl. ¶ 25; Sheriff's Dep't Emails 9. The sheriff forwarded Reynolds a copy of his January 5 email to Deputy Goulet and added the following message:

Captain Goulet is working on having a deputy assigned to the area during the meeting. I figured that on the first attempt, it would be beneficial to have a deputy out on the roadway checking for erratic operation of a motor vehicle rather than stopping into the meeting. Desjardins could be at the meeting intoxicated (not illegal unless he is creating a disturbance), therefore approaching him at the meeting would not be the best approach, initially.
As always, a phone call to dispatch advising that Dana appears to be intoxicated and leaving the meeting would help in giving us articulable suspicion to make a traffic stop and check on his well being.
Kevin

Sheriff's Dep't Emails 9; see also ...


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