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Wolfe v. The City of Town And Country

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Eastern Division

June 24, 2019

JEFFREY WOLFE, Plaintiff,
v.
THE CITY OF TOWN AND COUNTRY, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Plaintiff Jeffrey Wolfe is a police officer who works for the City of Town and Country Police Department. He brings this case under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Town and Country, the City's Mayor, the members of the Board of Alderman, and the Chief of Police, all in their official capacities. He alleges that defendants violated his First Amendment rights of intimate association when they demoted him because of his relationship with another officer.

         I will deny defendants' motion to dismiss. Wolfe has plausibly stated a claim that defendants violated his constitutional rights, and so at this early stage of the case the claim survives. He also sufficiently alleges that this was done as part of the official policy of the City of Town and Country, because the action was taken by the highest decision-makers and affirmed by the Board of Aldermen, which is the policy-making body of the City. I will strike the claim for punitive damages as requested by defendants, which plaintiff does not oppose, but the case will proceed in all other respects.

         Background

         Wolfe has been a police officer for the City of Town and Country for twenty-six years and a supervisor for the past twenty-two years. Complaint, ECF 1 at ¶ 12. Defendants are the City of Town and Country, the Board of Aldermen, the Mayor, and the Chief of Police. The individual defendants are sued in their official capacities. Id. at ¶ 2-7. In 2012, Wolfe was promoted to the rank of sergeant; before the alleged incident he had performed his duties satisfactorily. Id. at ¶ 12. In March 2017, an “unbecoming conduct complaint” was filed against Wolfe regarding allegations of a relationship with another Town and Country police officer. Id. at ¶ 13.

         Wolfe was ordered to undergo a polygraph examination as part of the investigation. Id. at ¶ 13 and ¶ 14. In that test Wolfe was asked whether he and the subordinate officer had made plans for a vacation together and whether, “Prior to about four weeks ago, ” he had physical sexual contact with her, which he denied. Id. at ¶ 17 and ¶ 18. The polygraph examiner reported that in his opinion Wolfe had been truthful in his statements during the test. Id. at ¶ 19. The investigation of Wolfe concluded with a finding that he did not show preferential treatment to any officer. Id. at ¶ 22. In April 2017, Chief of Police Kranz informed Wolfe that he was demoted to Corporal and his compensation was reduced. Id. at ¶ 20. Wolfe exercised his right of appeal to the Board of Aldermen, which affirmed the demotion. Id. at ¶ 24-27.

         Wolfe alleges that he did not engage in a relationship with the other officer while he was the officer's supervisor. Id. at ¶ 23. He alleges that his actions did not violate any Town and Country policy or regulation regarding workplace fraternization. Id. at ¶ 28 and 30. Wolfe further alleges that the defendants demoted him under color of state law and this action was a final policy or was approved by those with final policy-making authority. Id. at ¶ 36.

         Discussion

         The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), Fed. R. Civ. P., is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. When considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court assumes the factual allegations of a complaint are true and construes them in favor of the plaintiff. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1989). Rule 8(a)(2), Fed. R. Civ. P., provides that a complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the Supreme Court clarified that under Rule 8(a)(2) a complaint must contain “more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); accord Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). Specifically, to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain enough factual allegations, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief “that is plausible on its face.” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. I must accept the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and construe them in plaintiff's favor, but I am not required to accept the legal conclusions the plaintiff draws from the facts alleged. Id. at 555; Retro Television Network, Inc. v. Luken Commc'ns, LLC, 696 F.3d 766, 768-69 (8th Cir. 2012).

         Defendants argue that a police officer has no constitutional right to intimate association with another officer in an off-duty relationship. They additionally argue that even if there is such a right, municipal liability cannot be imposed here because Wolfe has not alleged a governmental policy that caused him injury. Finally, defendants argue that any infringement on Wolfe's constitutional rights is outweighed by the governmental interest in maintaining an orderly, safe, efficient, fair and trusted police department.[1] ECF # 17 at p. 9.

         To state a plausible § 1983 claim, a plaintiff must allege a violation of a constitutional right and must show the alleged deprivation was committed by a person “acting under color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). A municipality may be held liable under § 1983 if the municipality, “under color of any statute, ordinance, regulation, custom, or usage of any State ..., subjected, or causes to be subjected, any citizen of the United States … to the deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Section 1983 may impose liability upon a municipality when a municipal custom or policy resulted in the deprivation of a right protected by the constitution or federal law. Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978).

         The Supreme Court has recognized that a decision “to enter into and maintain certain intimate human relationships” is a form of freedom of association that “receives protection as a fundamental element of personal liberty.” Roberts v. U.S. Jaycees, 468 U.S. 609, 617-18 (1984). The Supreme Court explained that:

[T]he constitutional shelter afforded such relationships reflects the realization that individuals draw much of their emotional enrichment from close ties with others. Protecting these relationships from unwarranted state interference therefore safeguards the ability independently to define one's identity that is central to any concept of liberty.

Id. at 619 (internal citations omitted). In Roberts the Court found it unnecessary to precisely identify every factor that would entitle such relationships to protection, but noted that “such attributes as relative smallness, a high degree of selectivity in decisions to begin and maintain the affiliation, and seclusion from others in critical aspects of the relationship” are factors that may define such relationships. Id. at 619, 620. Later, in Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003), the Supreme Court further explained that “the State is not omnipresent in the home… ...


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