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Raboczkay v. City of Taylor

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Southern Division

November 22, 2019

CITY OF TAYLOR, et al. Defendants.



         Former City of Taylor police chief John Blair approached Plaintiff Patrick Raboczkay, a retired Taylor police officer, and asked whether he thought J and M Towing should be awarded the City's exclusive towing contract. Based on his experience as a police officer, Raboczkay told Blair that J and M Towing was untrustworthy and had questionable drivers with criminal records. Blair relayed this information to Defendants Rick Sollars (Mayor of Taylor), and Herman Ramik (a Taylor city council member). According to Raboczkay, Sollars and Ramik received “kick backs” from J and M Towing, and they retaliated against Raboczkay for his statement by causing criminal investigations into his work as a Taylor salvage vehicle inspector and making false public statements about him in the press. Sollars, Ramik, and Defendant City of Taylor have all filed motions to dismiss (Dkts. 40-42). The matters are fully briefed. For the reasons discussed below, Sollars's and Ramik's motions are granted in part; the City of Taylor's motion is granted.

         I. BACKGROUND

         The following allegations are taken as true for the purposes of the pending motions. Raboczkay served as a City of Taylor police officer from 1997 through 2017. 2d Am. Compl. ¶ 11 (Dkt. 39). He retired in October 2017. Id. ¶ 19. Shortly after his retirement, Raboczkay entered into a personal service contract with the City of Taylor and Defendant Sollars to serve as the “CMV Weigh Master/Motor Carrier Officer, ” performing salvage vehicle inspections on behalf of the City. Id. ¶¶ 13-20. For a fee, salvage vehicle inspectors verify that salvaged vehicles do not contain any stolen parts and that the vehicles are street worthy. 4/12/2018 Detroit News Article, Ex. D to Compl. (Dkt. 6-3).

         In March 2018, after working hours, then police chief John Blair approached Raboczkay and one of his colleagues to inquire about non-party J and M Towing's reputation. 2d Am. Compl. ¶ 25. The City was considering making J and M Towing its exclusive towing service. Id. Blair did not seek Raboczkay's opinion as the City's CMW Weigh Master, but rather sought his opinion as a private citizen “off the record.” Id. ¶¶ 25-30. Raboczkay told Blair that J and M Towing was not trustworthy and had questionable drivers with criminal records. Id. ¶ 31.

         Blair subsequently shared Raboczkay's opinion with the City Council, where Sollars and Ramik were in attendance. Id. ¶ 32. After the city council meeting, Ramik began sending false and defamatory letters to the Michigan Secretary of State requesting a criminal investigation into the City's salvage vehicle inspection program; he also urged Sollars to initiate an investigation. Id. ¶ 35. According to Raboczkay, Ramik has a close relationship with J and M Towing and had been pressuring the City to award J and M Towing its exclusive towing contract. Id. ¶ 36. Raboczkay alleges that Ramik falsely advised Sollars that Raboczkay and his colleague were “going to prison.” Id. ¶ 38.

         In April, the Michigan Secretary of State informed Raboczkay that, based on Ramik's complaint, the salvage vehicle inspection program was under investigation. Id. ¶ 39. Raboczkay's position was suspended pending the outcome of the investigation. Id. ¶ 40. In a statement to the Detroit News, Ramik said that he blew the whistle on two former Taylor police officers, alleging that they had committed fraud by not turning over vehicle-salvage-inspection fees to the City. 4/12/2018 Detroit News Article. In the same article, Blair noted that his department was cooperating with the Secretary of State; the article also quoted Sollars as stating that “concerns were raised that some questionable actions may have occurred” and that “while this investigation is ongoing, the two officers have been placed on administrative leave until further notice.” Id. A few days later, Ramik appeared on Fox 2 News and again falsely accused Raboczkay of fraud, theft, and embezzlement. 2d Am. Compl. ¶ 43.

         In August 2018, Raboczkay was cleared of any criminal wrongdoing with respect to the vehicle salvage inspection program. Despite being cleared, Raboczkay was not reinstated into his previous position. Id. ¶ 98. In December, the City's Human Resources Department offered to meet with Raboczkay about entering into a voluntary agreement to resign his position and agree not to sue the City or its officials. Id. ¶ 99. Raboczkay's attorney contacted the City to resolve matters and to avoid litigation, but the City ignored the request and terminated Raboczkay's employment on December 28, 2018. Id. ¶¶ 99-102. Raboczkay alleges that Sollars ordered the Human Resources Department to terminate Raboczkay's employment. Id. ¶ 103. According to Raboczkay, Sollars and Ramik receive financial “kick backs” from J and M Towing, and their actions against Raboczkay were retaliation for speaking out against J and M Towing and threatening to bring this action against them. Id. ¶¶ 56, 104-105.

         Raboczkay filed this action alleging First Amendment retaliation, violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, and a state law defamation claim against Defendants Sollars and Ramik. There are no claims brought against Defendant City of Taylor. Sollars, Ramik, and the City of Taylor all filed motions to dismiss (Dkts. 40-42) under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6).


         On a motion to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), “[t]he defendant has the burden of showing that the plaintiff has failed to state a claim for relief.” Directv, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007) (citing Carver v. Bunch, 946 F.2d 451, 454-455 (6th Cir. 1991)), cert. denied, 552 U.S. 1311 (2008). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the plaintiff must allege sufficient facts to state a claim to relief above the speculative level, such that it is “plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). The plausibility standard requires courts to accept the alleged facts as true, even when their truth is doubtful, and to make all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009); Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555-556.

         Evaluating a complaint's plausibility is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679. Although a complaint that offers no more than “labels and conclusions, ” a “formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action, ” or “naked assertion[s]” devoid of “further factual enhancement” will not suffice, id. at 678, it need not contain “detailed factual allegations, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555; see also Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 93 (2007) (“[S]pecific facts are not necessary . . . .”). Rather, a complaint needs only enough facts to suggest that discovery may reveal evidence of illegality, even if the likelihood of finding such evidence is remote. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556.

         III. ANALYSIS

         Defendants argue that Raboczkay has failed to state a claim for First Amendment retaliation, Equal Protection, and defamation. In his response brief, Raboczkay agrees to dismiss his Equal Protection claim. Resp. at 27 (Dkt. 46). The First Amendment and defamation claims will be taken in turn.

         A. First Amendment Retaliation

         To survive a motion to dismiss a claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff must allege two elements: (1) the defendant acted under color of state law; and (2) the defendant's conduct deprived the plaintiff of rights secured under federal law. Bloch v. Ribar, 156 F.3d 673, 677 (6th Cir. 1998). Defendants do not dispute that Raboczkay alleged that Sollars and Ramik were acting under the color of state law. Defendants dispute whether Raboczkay has been deprived any right secured under federal law.

         To establish a First Amendment retaliation claim, the plaintiff must show “‘(1) he was engaged in a constitutionally protected activity; (2) he was subjected to adverse action or deprived of some benefit; and (3) the protected speech was a ‘substantial' or ‘motivating factor' in the adverse action.'” Haddad v. Gregg, 910 F.3d 237, 243 (6th Cir. 2018) (quoting Farhat v. Jopke, 370 F.3d 580, 588 (6th Cir. 2004)). ...

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