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Wilcox v. Lyons

United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Roanoke Division

December 6, 2018

COLETTE M. WILCOX, Plaintiff,
v.
NATHAN H. LYONS, ESQ., et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          Michael F. Urbanski, Chief United States District Judge.

         This is an employment action arising under both federal and state law. Plaintiff Colette M. Wilcox ("Wilcox") filed this employment action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging violations of her due process rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Defendants moved to dismiss Wilcox's claims. ECF No. 35. The court held a hearing on Defendants' first motion to dismiss on March 22, 2018, and subsequently entered an order dismissing with prejudice Wilcox's claims against Carroll County as well as her hostile work environment claim against defendants Nathan H. Lyons, Esq., ("Lyons"), the Commonwealth Attorney for Carroll County, and Phillip C. Steele, Esq. ("Steele"), a Deputy Commonwealth Attorney for Carroll County. ECF No. 22. The court dismissed without prejudice Wilcox's claims of sex discrimination, retaliation, and deprivation of liberty interest. ECF No. 22. The court also gave Wilcox leave to amend. Wilcox's state law battery claim against Steele survived the first motion to dismiss. ECF Nos. 32-33.

         Wilcox moved for reconsideration of the court's March 23, 2018, order regarding her retaliation claim. ECF No. 24. The court entered an order denying Wilcox's motion for reconsideration. ECF No. 33. Wilcox then filed an amended complaint in which she (1) asserted additional factual matter supporting her claim for deprivation of liberty interest (Count II), (2) restated her battery claim (Count III), and (3) reasserted her retaliation claim (Count I). Wilcox's amended complaint did not provide any new factual matter for the court to consider vis-a-vis the retaliation claim. Count I was therefore dismissed. Id. The only remaining claims in the amended complaint are Count II against Lyons and Count III against Steele.

         The matter presently before the court is Defendants' motion to dismiss Wilcox's amended complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. ECF No. 35. With respect to Count II, Defendants argue that Wilcox fails to state a claim because the facts alleged are false. Id. at 10-11. Indeed, Defendants state that the Wilcox's allegations as to Count II are "just absolutely contrary to the facts, facts indeed Ms. Wilcox and her attorney know to be false." ECF No. 35, at 11. This argument is inapposite as the facts alleged by Wilcox are taken as true at the motion to dismiss stage. Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d 472, 474 (4th Cir. 1997). Defendants further argue that Wilcox fails to state a claim for Count II because Wilcox initiated the administrative claims process with the Virginia Employment Commission ("VEC"), ECF No. 35, at 5-6, relying on Bishop v. Wood for the proposition that publicly filed documents and statements made in a judicial proceeding commenced by the plaintiff after she suffered her alleged injury cannot retroactively support a cause of action for deprivation of liberty. 426 U.S. 341, 348 (1976). Defendants move to dismiss Count III, arguing that Steele was not acting under the color of law and state law is not to be enforced in federal court through 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and that, in any event, Wilcox failed to adequately plead the "volitional activity" element required to state a claim for battery under Virginia law. ECF No. 35, at 11-16.

         For the reasons set forth below, Wilcox has failed to allege facts sufficient to support her deprivation of liberty claim in Count II. In light of the dismissal of Wilcox's last remaining federal claim, the court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Count III, her state-law claim for battery, and dismisses that claim without prejudice. The motion to dismiss Count II and Count III is therefore GRANTED.

         I.

         Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure allows for a party to move for dismissal when a complaint fails to state a claim for which relief can be granted. To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient "facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A plaintiff establishes "facial plausibility" by pleading "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). The complaint's "[f]actual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. In ruling on a 12(b)(6) motion, the court must accept all well-pleaded allegations in the complaint as true and draw all reasonable factual inferences in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Ibarra v. United States, 120 F.3d at 474. However, a court does not need to accept either "legal conclusions drawn from facts" or "unwarranted inferences, unreasonable conclusions, or arguments." E. Shore Mkts., Inc. v. J.D. Assocs. Ltd. P'ship, 213 F.3d 175, 180 (4th Cir. 2000). Further, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Only after a claim is stated adequately may it then "be supported by showing any set of facts consistent with the allegations in the complaint." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 546.

         II.

         The Fourteenth Amendment protects the "right to procedural due process when governmental action threatens a person's liberty interest in his reputation and choice of occupation." Ridpath v. Bd. of Governors Marshall Univ., 447 F.3d 292, 307 (4th Cir. 2006). The Fourth Circuit has determined that to state a claim for deprivation of a liberty interest in one's reputation or choice of occupation pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege (1) that the charges made against her imposed on her a stigma that prevented her from engaging in other employment, (2) that the charges were made public by her employer, (3) that the charges were made in conjunction with a termination or significant demotion, and (4) that the charges were false. Stone v. University of Md. Med. Sys. Corp., 855 F.2d 167, 173 n. 5 (4th Cir. 1988) (citing Board of Regents of State Colls. V. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 573-75 (1972); see Bishop v. Wood, 426 U.S. 341, 348-49 (1976).[1]

         A.

         With respect to the first element, Wilcox alleges that her wrongful termination resulted in a stigmatized and severely diminished professional reputation within Carroll County and throughout Southwest Virginia. See Compl., ECF No. 34, at ¶¶ 74-81, 111-12. Wilcox claims that Lyons perpetuated this stigma related to her work performance by petitioning the Circuit Court of Carroll County to overturn an award of unemployment benefits awarded to Wilcox from the VEC. In furtherance of this petition, Wilcox alleges that Lyons filed damaging pleadings and made damaging statements through counsel in open court during oral argument on March 29, 2017, before Circuit Court Judge David A. Melesco. Id. at ¶¶ 75-81, 112. More specifically, Wilcox claims the aforementioned documents and statements suggest that Wilcox: (1) engaged in misconduct at her place of employment as defined by Virginia Code § 60.2-618, (2) engaged in willful insubordination and that said her insubordination was to such a high degree, that a single incident justified her termination, (3) failed to follow an attendance policy, and (4) acted unreasonably regarding her duties as a prosecutor. Id.

         With respect to the second and third elements, Wilcox claims that Lyons made statements "through counsel" in open court petitioning the Circuit Court of Carroll County to overturn an award of unemployment benefits Wilcox received because of her termination. Id. at ¶ 76. Wilcox notes that Lyons' petition involved lengthy briefings by parties, oral arguments, and public filings directly related to her termination, and that the "stigmatizing pleadings remain at the Clerk's Office of Carroll County for public inspective by anyone." Id. at ¶¶ 76-78. Wilcox avers that the statements uttered by counsel for Lyons were made in a forum frequented by Wilcox's peers and prospective employers and that the Virginia Supreme Court's online case information website indicates the names of parties involved and the existence of pleadings, Id. at ¶¶ 80-81. Wilcox further alleges that her termination was well known within the small community of Carroll County and that prospective employers have requested whether she has been terminated, requiring her to describe the circumstances. Id. at ¶¶ 107-8. Finally, she alleges that this stigma resulted directly from statements made after and in conjunction with her termination. Id. at ¶¶ 75-81, 112

         With respect to the fourth and final element, Wilcox alleges the falsity of the statements made in connection with her termination. Id. at ¶¶ 72, 75, 105-06, 109. Wilcox claims that Lyons' accusation of insubordination was pre-textual, that she only exhibited excellent work performance throughout her employment, and that she was always professional and courteous despite the allegedly hostile work environment, harassment, and sexual discrimination she endured. Id. at ¶¶ 72, 98, 116. Wilcox claims that she remained "professional and cordial" both when Lyons (1) accused her of violating state policy by taking too much leave and when he subsequently (2) requested that she sign a written reprimand documenting this violation. Id. at ¶¶ 61-67. When she sought clarification by requesting a copy of the relevant policy to which Lyons had referred, Wilcox claims that Lyons suddenly turned his back, raised his voice, and terminated her for "insubordination." Id. at ΒΆΒΆ 66-68. Wilcox claims to have been performing her work satisfactorily at the time of her termination by meeting or exceeding ...


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