11th Circuit Denies Defendant's Rule 12(b)(6) Motion; Holds Plaintiff Sufficiently Alleged Free Association and Procedural Due Process Violations
Per Epps v. Watson , --- F.3d ----, 2007 WL 2043851 (11th Cir.(Ga.) Jul 18, 2007) (NO. 06-13378):
"We have jurisdiction to review the denial of the defense of qualified immunity on interlocutory appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291." Gonzalez v. Reno, 325 F.3d 1228, 1233 (11th Cir.2003) (citation omitted). We review a district court's decision to deny the defense of qualified immunity de novo, "accepting the factual allegations in the complaint as true and drawing all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor." Id. (citation omitted). Our circuit, however, imposes a heightened pleading requirement in section 1983 claims against individuals and plaintiffs cannot rely on "vague or conclusory" allegations. See GJR Invs., Inc. v. County of Escambia, 132 F.3d 1359, 1367 (11th Cir.1998) ("Some factual detail in the pleadings is necessary to the adjudication of § 1983 claims. This is particularly true in cases involving qualified immunity, where we must determine whether a defendant's actions violated a clearly established right."); Fullman v. Graddick, 739 F.2d 553, 556-57 (11th Cir.1984) (holding that in civil rights actions "a complaint will be dismissed as insufficient where the allegations it contains are vague and conclusory." (citations omitted)). In such cases, the complaint must allege the relevant facts "with some specificity." Id. (citation omitted). "We must also keep in mind the fact that we generally accord official conduct a presumption of legitimacy.' " Dalrymple v. Reno, 334 F.3d 991, 996 (11th Cir.2003) (alterations omitted) (citing United States Dep't of State v. Ray, 502 U.S. 164, 179, 112 S.Ct. 541, 550, 116 L.Ed.2d 526 (1991)).
Within the context of a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, as there is no record beyond the complaint, the well-pleaded factual allegations in the plaintiff's complaint are the focus of the determinations. Id. at 994-95. "Unless the plaintiff's allegations state a claim of violation of clearly established law, a defendant pleading qualified immunity is entitled to dismissal before the commencement of discovery." Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 2815, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985) (citation omitted); Behrens v. Pelletier, 516 U.S. 299, 309, 116 S.Ct. 834, 840, 133 L.Ed.2d 773 (1996) ("At [the 12(b)(6) ] stage, it is the defendant's conduct as alleged in the complaint that is scrutinized for 'objective legal reasonableness.' ").
"The Supreme Court has urged us to apply the affirmative defense of qualified immunity at the earliest possible stage in litigation because the defense is immunity from suit and not from damages only." Marsh v. Butler County, Ala., 268 F.3d 1014, 1022 (11th Cir.2001) ( en banc ) (citations omitted). We have applied the qualified immunity defense at the 12(b)(6) stage before. See, e.g., Chesser v. Sparks, 248 F.3d 1117 (11th Cir.2001) (reversing the district court's denial of official's motion to dismiss plaintiff's freedom of expression and freedom of association claims on the basis of qualified immunity); Denno v. Sch. Bd. of Volusia County, 218 F.3d 1267 (11th Cir.2000) (affirming the district court's Rule 12(b)(6) dismissal of plaintiff's § 1983 claim for the deprivation of First Amendment rights against the individual defendants); Maggio v. Sipple, 211 F.3d 1346 (11th Cir.2000) (reversing the district court's failure to grant 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss because defendants were entitled to qualified immunity).
A public official who asserts a defense of qualified immunity must establish that he was "engaged in a 'discretionary function' when he performed the acts of which the plaintiff complains." Holloman ex rel. Holloman v. Harland, 370 F.3d 1252, 1264 (11th Cir.2004) (citation omitted). Where there is no dispute as to the discretionary nature of the actions complained of, like here, we look to determine (1) whether the plaintiff has factually alleged the deprivation of a constitutional right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the violation. Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201, 121 S.Ct. 2151, 2156, 150 L.Ed.2d 272 (2001); Holloman, 370 F.3d at 1264. The plaintiff bears the burden of proof as to both of these determinations. Dalrymple, 334 F.3d at 995 ("Once the government official has established that she was acting within her discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff [ ] to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate." (citation omitted)). With this two-step inquiry in mind, we turn to the question of whether Watson's decision to terminate Epps' employment violated the First Amendment right involved here-the freedom of association-in such a manner that a reasonable government official would have known.
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Under the alleged facts, a reasonable public official in Tax Commissioner Watson's place could not have believed that firing Epps from her job as a clerk did not violate First Amendment law. As a result, Tax Commissioner Watson is not entitled to dismissal on the basis of qualified immunity with respect to Epps' First Amendment claim at this stage of the case. Moreover, the Amended Complaint states a cause of action sufficient to withstand a 12(b)(6) motion regarding Epps' procedural due process claim. We therefore AFFIRM the district court's order denying Louise Watson's motion to dismiss these claims based on qualified immunity.