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Costanza v. Jefferson Parish

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

June 26, 2017


         SECTION “R” (2)



         Before the Court are defendants' motions to dismiss plaintiff's claims in part, [1] and defendants' motion to stay.[2] For the following reasons, the Court grants defendants' motions to dismiss and denies defendants' motion to stay.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Katherine Costanza has been employed as a civil servant by Jefferson Parish, Louisiana, for over 24 years.[3] According to her complaint, she was promoted from her position as Environmental Quality Supervisor to Assistant Director for Environmental Affairs on July 31, 2006.[4] On December 26, 2015, Costanza was demoted from her position as Assistant Director to Administrative Management Specialist with the Division of Public Works Administration.[5] Plaintiff alleges that she was demoted to allow Margaret Winter to return to the position of Assistant Director.[6]Plaintiff further alleges that Winter was the Assistant Director 25 years ago, but she took a leave of absence to become the Director of Environmental Affairs.[7] When a recent change in the Jefferson Parish Administration resulted in Winter's losing her position as Director, she was allowed to return to the Assistant Director position, ousting Costanza.[8] According to Costanza, Winter made the decision to demote Costanza with Jefferson Parish employees John Dumas, Kazem Alikhani, and Lauren Call.[9]

         Costanza alleges that a “devastating” decrease in pay accompanied her demotion, as her pay grade was reduced from 40 to 28, resulting in a decrease in salary of approximately $15, 000 annually.[10] Her new salary is also capped at a number significantly lower than the cap for the Assistant Director position.[11] Plaintiff further alleges that this annual reduction will lead to a corresponding reduction in her pension and benefits.[12]

         On January 25, 2016, plaintiff filed an administrative appeal of her demotion with the Jefferson Parish Personnel Board.[13] While that challenge was pending, on December 21, 2016, plaintiff filed this action against Jefferson Parish, the Jefferson Parish Personnel Department, the Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs, the Jefferson Parish Department of Public Works, Dumas (in his individual and official capacities), Winter (in her individual and official capacities), Alikhani (in his individual and official capacities), and Call (in her individual and official capacities).[14] Plaintiff asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that her demotion violates her substantive and procedural due process rights, as well as her rights under the Equal Protection Clause.[15] She also asserts that she was wrongfully demoted under Louisiana law.[16] Plaintiff seeks declaratory and injunctive relief (in the form of reinstatement and backpay), as well as damages.[17]

         Defendants now move to dismiss with prejudice the claims against Jefferson Parish Personnel Department, Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs, and the Jefferson Parish Department of Public Works, [18] as well as the official capacity claims against Dumas, Winter, Alikhani, and Call.[19] Defendants have also moved to stay this case pending the resolution of plaintiff's state administrative proceeding.[20] Plaintiff has no opposition to both motions to dismiss but opposes defendants' motion to stay.[21]


         To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead “sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible when the plaintiff pleads facts that allow the court to “draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true, viewing them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Gines v. D.R. Horton, Inc., 699 F.3d 812, 816 (5th Cir. 2012) (quoting In re Katrina Canal Breaches Litig., 495 F.3d 191, 205 (5th Cir. 2007)). But a court is not bound to accept as true legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         A legally sufficient complaint must establish more than a “sheer possibility” that the plaintiff's claim is true. Id. It need not contain detailed factual allegations, but it must go beyond labels, legal conclusions, or formulaic recitations of the elements of a cause of action. Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). In other words, the face of the complaint must contain enough factual matter to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of each element of the plaintiff's claim. Lormand v. U.S. Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 257 (5th Cir. 2009). If there are insufficient factual allegations to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, or if it is apparent from the face of the complaint that there is an insuperable bar to relief, see Jones v. Bock, 549 U.S. 199, 215 (2007); Carbe v. Lappin, 492 F.3d 325, 328 n.9 (5th Cir. 2007), the claim must be dismissed.


         A. Motions to Dismiss

         First, defendants argue that the claims against Jefferson Parish Personnel Department, Jefferson Parish Department of Environmental Affairs, and Jefferson Parish Department of Public Works must be dismissed because they are not juridical entities capable of suing or being sued. Rule 17(b) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provides that the capacity to sue or be sued is determined by “the law of the state where the court is located.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 17(b). Under Louisiana law, “a government body may not be sued if it is merely a dependent sub-body of a larger government agency.” Jefferson v. Delgado Cmty. Coll., No. 13-2626, 2013 WL 5530337, at *1 (E.D. La. Oct. 7, 2013) (citing Dejoie v. Medley, 945 So.2d 968, 972 (La.App. 2 Cir. 2006)). The Louisiana Supreme Court has adopted a functional approach to determining whether a governmental body is a separate and distinct juridical person, asking if the body has “the legal capacity to function independently and not just as the agency or division of another governmental entity.” Roberts v. Sewerage and Water Board of New Orleans, 634 So.2d 341, 347 (La. 1994) (citations omitted).

         Here, Jefferson Parish is organized pursuant to a home rule charter, as authorized by Article VI, Section 4 of the Louisiana Constitution. See La. Const. art. VI, § 4. Article 1 of the Home Rule Charter of Jefferson Parish provides the parish with “all the powers, rights, privileges, and authority” to which it is entitled under the Louisiana Constitution. Jefferson Parish Home Rule Charter, Art. 1, § 1.01. In addition, the charter designates the Parish President as the chief administrative officer of the parish, responsible for the “administration and supervision of all parish departments, offices, agencies, and special districts.” Id. § 3.03. The Parish President also has the authority to appoint and remove all administrative officers and employees. Id.

         Accordingly, under the Jefferson Parish Home Charter, these departmental defendants do not function independently of the Jefferson Parish President. As such, these departmental defendants lack the capacity to sue or be sued, and the claims against them must be dismissed with prejudice. See, e.g., Causey v. Par. of Tangipahoa, 167 F.Supp.2d 898, 909 (E.D. La. 2001) (finding that “City of Hammond Police Department is merely a department within the City of Hammond, and not a proper party defendant”); Manley v. State of Louisiana, No. 00-1939, 2001 WL 506175, at *2 (E.D. La. May 11, 2001) (“The Court dismisses plaintiff's claims against the New Orleans Police Department because it is simply a department of the City government and is not amenable to suit.”) (citations omitted).

         Next, defendants argue that the official capacity claims against the individual defendants must be dismissed because they are duplicative of Costanza's claims against Jefferson Parish. As defendants correctly state, in section 1983 actions, claims against individuals in their official capacity are treated as claims against the municipality. See, e.g., Hafer v. Melo, 502 U.S. 21, 25 (1991) (citing Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159, 165 (1985)). Plaintiff's complaint alleges the same claims against all defendants, and makes no distinction between the acts of Jefferson Parish and the acts of the individual defendants, in either their individual or official capacities. Therefore, the official capacity claims against the individual defendants are duplicative of the claims against Jefferson Parish. Plaintiff cannot maintain an action both against the individual defendants in their official capacities and Jefferson Parish, as this would allow the municipal defendant to be liable twice for the same alleged conduct. LaMartina-Howell v. St. Tammany Par. Sch. Bd., No. 07-1168, 2009 WL 3837323, at *4 (E.D. La. Nov. 12, 2009) (citing Castro Romero v. Becken, 256 F.3d 349, 355 (5th Cir. 2001)). Accordingly, plaintiffs' official capacity claims against Dumas, Winter, Alikhani, and Call are dismissed with prejudice.

         B. Motion to Stay

         Defendants also move to stay this case pending the resolution of plaintiff's state administrative proceedings. Federal courts have a “virtual[] unflagging obligation . . . to exercise the jurisdiction given them.” Colo. River Water Conservation Dist. v. United States, 424 U.S. 800, 817 (1976) (citations omitted). “However, in ‘extraordinary and narrow' circumstances, a district court may abstain from exercising jurisdiction over a case when there is a concurrent state proceeding . . . .” Murphy v. Uncle Ben's, Inc., 168 F.3d 734, 737 (5th Cir. 1999) (quoting Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 813). The court's decision whether to abstain should be based on considerations of “[w]ise judicial administration, giving regard to conservation of judicial resources and comprehensive disposition of litigation.” Id. (quoting Kerotest Mfg. Co. v. C-O-Two Fire Equip. Co., 342 U.S. 180, 183 (1952)).

         For a court to abstain from exercising jurisdiction under the Colorado River doctrine, it first must find that the federal and state court actions are “parallel.” Hartford Accident & Indem. Co. v. Costa Lines Cargo Servs., Inc., 903 F.2d 352, 360 (5th Cir. 1990). Generally, actions are parallel when the same parties are litigating the same issues. See Republicbank Dallas, Nat'l Ass'n v. McIntosh, 828 F.2d 1120, 1121 (5th Cir. 1987). But the Fifth Circuit has rejected the argument that the parties and issues must be completely identical for the action to be parallel. See Brown v. Pacific Life Ins. Co., 462 F.3d 384, 395 n.7 (5th Cir. 2006) (noting that “‘there need not be applied in every instance a mincing insistence on precise identity' of parties and issues”) (quoting McIntosh, 828 F.2d at 1121); accord Polu Kai Servs., LLC v. Ins. Co. of State of Pa., No. 06-10708, 2007 WL 716115, at *2 (E.D. La. Mar. 6, 2007) (finding actions parallel despite the presence of additional issues in the state court litigation and despite that the state court plaintiff was not a party in federal action). Here, both the federal and state proceedings revolve around Costanza's demotion, and though her state action named only the Jefferson Parish Department of Public Works as a defendant, she ultimately seeks to hold the same body (Jefferson Parish) liable for the same alleged wrongs. Further, in both cases, she asserts that Jefferson Parish violated her substantive and procedural due process rights, and that Section 6.1 of the Jefferson Parish Personnel Rules is unconstitutionally void for vagueness and overbreadth.[22] Thus, the Court finds that the two actions are parallel. See Kenner Acquisitions, LLC v. BellSouth Telecommunications, Inc., No. 06-3927, 2007 WL 625833, at *2 (E.D. La. Feb. 26, 2007) (finding actions parallel where the proceedings consisted of “substantially the same parties litigating substantially the same issues”) (citation omitted); Polu Kai, 2007 WL 716115, at *2.

         The Court next must determine whether exceptional circumstances exist that would permit the court to decline jurisdiction in the instant matter. See Murphy, 168 F.3d at 738. The Supreme Court has set forth six factors to guide this inquiry: (1) assumption by either court of jurisdiction over a res; (2) the relative inconvenience of the forums; (3) the avoidance of piecemeal litigation; (4) the order in which jurisdiction was obtained by the concurrent forums; (5) whether and to what extent federal law provides the rules of decision on the merits; and (6) the adequacy of the state proceedings to protect the rights of the party invoking federal jurisdiction. Wilton v. Seven Falls Co., 515 U.S. 277, 285-86 (1995). “No one factor is necessarily determinative; a carefully considered judgment taking into account both the obligation to exercise jurisdiction and the combination of factors counseling against that exercise is required.” Colo. River, 424 U.S. at 818-19. The Court must balance the factors carefully, “with the balance heavily weighted in favor of the exercise of jurisdiction.” Moses H. Cone Mem'l Hosp. v. Mercury Constr. Corp., 460 U.S. 1, 16 (1983).

         1. Assumption by Either Court of ...

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