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Puppala v. Will County Community Health Center

September 30, 2010

RAMANA K. PUPPALA, M.D., PLAINTIFF,
v.
WILL COUNTY COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER; MARY M. COFFEY AS CHIEF EXECUTIVE OFFICER OF THE WILL COUNTY COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER; WILL COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT; JOHN L. CICERO AS EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR OF THE WILL COUNTY HEALTH DEPARTMENT; COUNTY OF WILL, STATE OF ILLINOIS; AND LAWRENCE M. WALSH AS COUNTY EXECUTIVE OF THE COUNTY OF WILL, STATE OF ILLINOIS, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Joan H. Lefkow

OPINION AND ORDER

Ramana Puppala has filed this civil rights action against Will County, Illinois; Will County Community Health Center ("WCCHC") and the Will County Health Department ("WCHD"); Mary Coffey, chief executive officer of WCCHC; John Cicero, executive director of WCHD; and Lawrence Walsh, county executive for Will County. Puppala sues the individual defendants in their official as well as individual capacities.*fn1 Puppala claims deprivation of rights protected by the First Amendment in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983, conspiracy to violate First Amendment rights in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1985, and retaliatory discharge under Illinois common law. Defendants have moved to dismiss the federal claims for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted and the state law claim for lack of subject matter jurisdiction. For the following reasons, defendants' motion [#16] is granted.

BACKGROUND*fn2

On January 2, 2007, WCCHC and Puppala, a physician licensed in Illinois, entered into an employment agreement, in which Puppala agreed to work for defendants as a full-time physician in obstetrics and gynecology until January 2010. Compl. ¶ 7. For this work, Puppala would receive a base annual salary of $215,200. Id. ¶ 8. The contract also required Puppala to serve as the Chairman of WCCHC's obstetrics and gynecology department for an additional $25,000 per year. Id. ¶ 9.

On October 27, 2008, Puppala filed suit in the Circuit Court of Illinois, Twelfth Judicial Circuit, Will County, Illinois. Id. ¶ 10.*fn3 Puppala sought damages and declaratory and injunctive relief for defendants' breach of contract. Ex. B to Compl. at 4-5, 7-8. For these violations, Puppala asked the court to terminate his employment agreement without liability to him and to award him damages. Id. On November 26, 2008, Puppala filed a supplementary motion for preliminary injunction in the same case.*fn4 Ex. A to Pl.'s Resp. at 1. In that motion, Puppala more specifically alleged that WCCHC's patient care does not comply with the appropriate medical standards. Id. at 2-3. As a remedy, Puppala asked the court to declare his employment agreement void or enjoin defendants to give him more authority under the agreement, specifically the authority to hire physicians. Id. at 6.

On December 4, 2008, an evidentiary hearing was set for January 15, 2009, and Puppala was set to testify at that hearing. Compl. ¶ 11. Defendants terminated Puppala on December 5. Id. ¶ 12. Although defendants claimed to have cause for the termination, in fact, they terminated Puppala to prevent him from testifying against WCCHC in his case and to retaliate for complaints and actions in connection with that suit. Id. ¶¶ 13-14, 28-29. This wrongful discharge was the product of repeated conversations between Coffey and Cicero, who planned to retaliate against Puppala and prevent him from testifying. Id. ¶¶ 27-29.

LEGAL STANDARD

A motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) challenges a complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6); Gen. Elec. Capital Corp. v. Lease Resolution Corp., 128 F.3d 1074, 1080 (7th Cir. 1997). In reviewing a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the court takes as true all facts in the complaint and draws all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Dixon v. Page, 291 F.3d 485, 486-87 (7th Cir. 2002). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the complaint must provide the defendants with notice of the claims and establish that the requested relief is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, --- U.S. ----, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 1949, 173 L.Ed. 2d 868 (2009). At the same time, the plaintiff need not plead legal theories. Hatmaker v. Mem'l Med. Ctr., --- F.3d ----, 2010 WL 3385191, at *1 (7th Cir. Aug. 30, 2010). Rather, it is the facts that count.

ANALYSIS

I. First Amendment Claims -- 42 U.S.C. § 1983

In Count I, Puppala alleges that defendants violated his First Amendment rights by firing him, not only in retaliation for previous statements but also to prevent him from testifying in his law suit. Count I, therefore, permits of two theories of liability, one for punishment of speech already made, sometimes called retaliation, and one for threatening penalties for future speech, or prior restraint. See Fairley v. Andrews, 578 F.3d 518, 525 (7th Cir. 2009) ("The Constitution prevents governmental actors from forbidding, or penalizing, speech that is protected under the first amendment. . . . Threatening penalties for future speech goes by the name 'prior restraint,' and a prior restraint is the quintessential first-amendment violation."). The court will analyze these claims separately, as Fairley requires. Id at 525.

A. Retaliation for Past Speech

To make out a First Amendment retaliation claim, a public employee must present evidence that (1) his speech was constitutionally protected; (2) he suffered a detriment likely to deter free speech; and (3) the speech was the but-for cause of the employer's action. Gunville v. Walker, 583 F.3d 979, 983-84 (7th Cir. 2009); Fairley, 578 F.3d at 525-26. A public employee's speech is protected by the First Amendment when the employee is speaking as a citizen on a matter of public concern. Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 419, 126 S.Ct. 1951, 164 L.Ed. 2d 689 (2006). Employees do not speak as citizens for First Amendment purposes when they "make statements pursuant to their official duties." Id. at 421. Thus, the court must make"a threshold determination regarding whether the public employee spoke in his capacity as a private citizen or as an employee." Chaklos v. Stevens, 560 F.3d 705, 711-12 (7th Cir. 2009). In determining the scope of an employee's duties, the "proper inquiry is a practical one." Garcetti, 547 U.S. at 424. The court should focus on the "duties an employee actually is expected to perform," rather than formal, written job descriptions. Id. at 424-25.

Defendants argue that Garcetti bars Puppala's claims because the subject matter of his speech -- the standard of care at WCCHC -- was related to his job duties. That argument, however, is inapposite to the issue, which is whether he spoke in fulfillment of his official duties. Defendants cannot and do not contend that Puppala filed suit against them as part of his employment responsibilities. Because Puppala clearly was not speaking pursuant to official duty ...


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