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Bianchini v. City of Jackson

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Northern Division

August 4, 2017




         This employment dispute is before the Court on Defendants' separately filed motions to dismiss Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) [36, 38] and Plaintiff's Motion to Amend the SAC [50]. Having considered the parties' submissions, the Court finds that the City of Jackson's motion to dismiss should be granted; Defendant Lee Vance's motion to dismiss should be denied as to the equal-protection claim but otherwise granted; and Plaintiff's motion to amend should be denied.

         I. Background

         Plaintiff Tina Bianchini is a white former police officer with the Jackson Police Department (“JPD”). On March 26, 2015, she was arrested and charged with domestic violence following an altercation with fellow officer Aaron Allen. See SAC [33] at 3. After being charged, Bianchini claims JPD Chief Lee Vance forced her to resign. She says that the decision was based on her race and sex, because Vance retained Allen, a similarly situated African-American male.

         Aggrieved by the decision, Bianchini sued Vance and the City of Jackson on June 24, 2016. Id. In her first Complaint, Bianchini alleged two federal-law claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on alleged equal-protection and unlawful-seizure violations. Compl. [1-1] at 4-5. She also brought state-law claims for false arrest, false imprisonment, and malicious prosecution.

         Id. at 5-6. The City of Jackson answered that Complaint on July 26, 2016 [3]. Since then, this case has had a hard time leaving the starting gates due to Bianchini's efforts to amend her complaint.

         Bianchini first sought leave to amend on September 26, 2016. See Pl.'s Mot. [12]. That motion sought to add claims against Commander Tyree Jones regarding alleged sexual harassment and also attempted to add claims against the original defendants related to that conduct. Believing the motion was unopposed, the magistrate judge granted it in a text order the following day, clearing the way for Bianchini to file her Amended Complaint [13] on September 27, 2016. But apparently the parties were not fully in agreement, and on October 11, 2016, Defendants moved to strike [16] the Amended Complaint. They argued then-as they do now- that the Amended Complaint would be futile for lack of specific facts establishing supervisory or municipal liability. See Defs.' Mot. [16]. The magistrate judge initially struck the amended complaint to allow additional briefing, see Nov. 21, 2016 Order [27], but he eventually granted leave to amend, see Jan. 17, 2017 Order [31]. Although the magistrate judge acknowledged Defendants' futility argument, he concluded that “the best course of action” was to allow the amendment subject to future dispositive motions. Jan. 17, 2017 Order [31] at 2. Accordingly, Bianchini refiled the SAC [33] on January 26, 2017. In doing so, she added sexual-harassment claims against Jones.

         After the SAC was filed, the parties participated in a February 16, 2017 case-management conference and agreed to certain deadlines. Most notably, the parties agreed to a March 20, 2017 deadline to amend the pleadings. See CMO [40]. Then, on February 20, 2017, before any responsive pleadings were filed, Defendants Vance and the City of Jackson both moved to dismiss the SAC under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). See Defs.' Mots.[36, 38]. Bianchini responded to both motions [45, 46], and Defendants replied [48, 49]. But to further complicate matters, Bianchini filed a new motion [50] on April 13, 2017, seeking leave to amend the SAC. Defendants responded in opposition on April 27, 2017 [51], and Bianchini declined to reply.

         II. Analysis

         A. Motions to Dismiss

         In considering a motion under Rule 12(b)(6), the “court accepts ‘all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff.'” Martin K. Eby Constr. Co. v. Dall. Area Rapid Transit, 369 F.3d 464, 467 (5th Cir. 2004) (quoting Jones v. Greninger, 188 F.3d 322, 324 (5th Cir. 1999)). To overcome a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, Plaintiff must plead “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). “Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact).” Id. at 555 (citations and footnote omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). It follows that “where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of misconduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not ‘show[n]'-‘that the pleader is entitled to relief.'” Id. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). “This standard ‘simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of' the necessary claims or elements.” In re S. Scrap Material Co., LLC, 541 F.3d 584, 587 (5th Cir. 2008) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In this case, there is some overlap between the two Defendants' motions. Accordingly, this portion of the Order will be organized by the claims reflected in the SAC. Where it makes sense, the arguments as to the separate Defendants will be segregated.

         1. Equal Protection

         Bianchini claims that she was fired because she is a white woman, whereas the City and Defendant Vance protect African-American male officers. The Equal Protection Clause “commands that no State shall ‘deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws, ' which is essentially a direction that all persons similarly situated should be treated alike.” City of Cleburne, Tex. v. Cleburne Living Ctr., 473 U.S. 432, 439 (1985). This constitutional protection “reaches only state actors, but § 1983 equal protection claims may be brought against individuals as well as municipalities.” Fitzgerald v. Barnstable Sch. Comm., 555 U.S. 246, 257 (2009). Here, Bianchini asserts her claim against the City and Vance.

         “To state a claim of . . . discrimination under the Equal Protection Clause and section 1983, the plaintiff ‘must allege and prove that [she] received treatment different from that received by similarly situated individuals and that the unequal treatment stemmed from a discriminatory intent.'” Bowlby v. City of Aberdeen, Miss., 681 F.3d 215, 227 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting Priester v. Lowndes Cty., 354 F.3d 414, 424 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         a. Vance's Motion

         Vance says that Bianchini fails to plead a plausible claim that he intended to discriminate based on race or sex and that he is therefore entitled to qualified immunity. “The basic steps of [the] qualified-immunity inquiry are well-known: a plaintiff seeking to defeat qualified immunity must show: (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.” Morgan v. Swanson, 659 F.3d 359, 371 (5th Cir. 2011). Vance never takes his qualified-immunity arguments past the first step, resting instead on the contention that the SAC fails in various ways to state plausible federal claims against him. Accordingly, this Order is limited to that same question.

         As for the equal-protection claim, Vance relies heavily on Yul Chu v. Mississippi State University, where the Fifth Circuit affirmed dismissal of an equal-protection claim under Rule 12(b)(6). 592 F. App'x 260, 267 (5th Cir. 2014). There, the plaintiff “merely state[d] that the university discriminated against him and did not discriminate against white faculty, but he fail[ed] to elaborate.” Id. Accordingly, “[t]here [were] no factual allegations to support that claim.” Id. Not ...

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