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Moody v. County of Santa Clara

United States District Court, N.D. California, San Jose Division

July 7, 2017

DON MOODY, Plaintiff,
COUNTY OF SANTA CLARA, et al., Defendants.


          EDWARD J. DAVILA United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Don Moody (“Moody”) brings this §1983 action against the County of Santa Clara and the Director of the Social Services Agency (“SSA”) and Bruce Wagstaff (collectively, “Defendants”), alleging violations of civil rights in connection with his termination from the position as the Public Guardian. Presently before the court is Defendants' Motion to Dismiss pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). Mot. to Dismiss (“Mot.”), Dkt. No. 10.

         The court has jurisdiction over this action pursuant to 28 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1343. Having carefully considered the papers submitted by both parties, as well as the arguments of counsel at the hearing held on this matter, the court finds Defendants' Motion well-taken. Accordingly, the Motion to Dismiss will be GRANTED for the reasons explained below.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Moody is the former Public Guardian of the County of Santa Clara. The Public Guardian is a position organized under the SSA's Department of Aging and Adult Services (“DAAS”) for the County of Santa Clara. Compl. ¶¶ 17, 18 Dkt. No. 1. In his position as the Public Guardian, Moody was directly supervised by the Director of DAAS, who in turn reported to the Director of SSA, Bruce Wagstaff. Id. ¶ 19. Moody took over as the Public Guardian beginning in September 2008, seven months after the previous Public Guardian, Rob Cecil, was removed. Id. ¶ 22. Moody was put on administrative leave on September 25, 2014 and subsequently terminated. Id. ¶ 31.

         A. History and Public Scrutiny of the Office of the Public Guardian

         Before Moody's tenure as Public Guardian, the Office of the Public Guardian (“the OPG” or “the Office”) had been subjected to significant public criticism. In 1998, Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury issued a report which “outlin[ed] deficiencies in the Public Guardian Office's operations and its policies and procedures.” Id. ¶ 20. The County also retained global management consultant Keerthi Mandala who, in 2008, authored a report that identified sixteen operational issues at OPG, eleven of which were highlighted as “high risk” (“the Mandala Report”). Id. ¶ 21.

         During Moody's tenure as the Public Guardian, the Office continued to receive significant media scrutiny. Id. ¶¶ 23-28. Notable publications included reports that the OPG was facing scrutiny for elder abuse and neglect published by in May 2012, reports that the Office was “unnecessarily taking control of elderly people's lives and denying them visitors, ” published by ABC 7 News in three November 2012 articles, and a report that the Office had “continu[ed] to spend [a] woman's money even after her conservatorship formally ended, ” published by ABC 7 News in a January 2014. Id. ¶¶ 23-25, 27. Additionally, the Santa Clara County Civil Grand Jury issued two more reports that were critical of OPG, one in 2013 and another in 2014. The 2013 Report, entitled “Improvements Are Needed in the Office of the Public Administrator/Guardian/Conservator, ” determined that seven of the “operational issues” that had been identified by the Mandala Report remained unaddressed and made various suggestions for improvement. Id. ¶ 26. The 2014 Report, entitled “Probate Conservatorship: A Safety Net In Need Of Repair, ” was initially issued in response to a complaint and resulted in “a follow-up review of the Public Guardian's policies and procedures for conservatorships for the elderly.” Id. ¶ 28. The 2014 Report “identified issues of concern and recommendations for improvement” but did not accuse Moody as being the cause of any of the alleged problems. Id. None of the articles identified Moody by name or suggested that he had been personally responsible for the problems at the Public Guardian's office. Compl. ¶ 30.

         However, after the 2014 Report was issued, Moody alleges that County employee Barbara Herlihy sent an unsolicited letter to the Civil Grand Jury that “blamed [him] for all of the problems in the office and expressed [her] opinion that he should not keep his job” (the “Herlihy Letter”). Id. ¶¶ 29-30. Moody alleges that the Herlihy Letter was “leaked by the County” to the San Jose Inside, where it was published online and remains publicly available.[1] Id. ¶ 29. Moody does not allege, nor could the court determine, which news article published by the San Jose Inside actually references or links to the Herlihy Letter, but the court notes that the letter itself appears to have been written on June 24, 2014 and received by the Civil Grand Jury on July 7, 2014. See id.

         B. Moody is Placed on Administrative Leave and Terminated

         On September 25th, 2014, Moody was placed on administrative leave with the recommendation that he be terminated as the Public Guardian. Id. ¶ 31. On this date, Wagstaff gave Moody a letter stating that he would be placed on administrative leave until further notice and that Wagstaff was recommending that he be terminated (the “Termination Letter”). Id. The Termination Letter provided that the reason for the recommendation was Moody's alleged violation of County Merit System Rules, Article 11, which states:

Section A25-301(a)(2) Inefficiency, incompetence, or negligence in the performance of duties, including failure to perform assigned task or failure to discharge duties in a prompt, competent and responsible manner.

Id.; see also Ex. A to Mot. to Dismiss (redacted copy of Moody's Termination Letter), Dkt. No. 10-2. The Termination Letter also informed Moody that he was entitled to a Skelly hearing, and also had the right to appeal the Skelly decision to the Santa Clara County Personnel Board. Ex. A, Dkt. No. 10-2. Following the meeting with Wagstaff, Moody alleges that he was “immediately [required] to turn over his badge and work phone, and was escorted out of the building in full view of the public” and his then co-workers. Compl. ¶ 33. Moody alleges that his predecessor, Mr. Cecil, had not been escorted from the workplace in a similar manner at the time of his termination. Id. ¶ 36.

         On the same day as Moody's termination, the San Jose Inside published an article entitled, “County Public Guardian Put on Leave, Escorted Out of Building.” Id. ¶ 34. Moody alleges that the County “intentionally leaked to the press information about Mr. Moody's termination, including the fact that he had been physically escorted from the premises.” Id. ¶ 35. Since his termination, Moody contends that he has been “unable to secure work in his chosen profession.” Id. ¶¶ 36-37.


         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a) requires a plaintiff to plead each claim with sufficient specificity to “give the defendant fair notice of what the… claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). Although particular detail is not generally necessary, the factual allegations “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level” such that the claim “is plausible on its face.” Id. at 556-57. A complaint which falls short of the Rule 8(a) standard may be dismissed if it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Dismissal of a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) may be based on a “lack of a cognizable legal theory or the absence of sufficient ...

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