OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MDOT DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS UNDER FEDERAL RULE OF CIVIL PROCEDURE 12(b)(6)
LINDA V. PARKER, U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE.
This lawsuit arises from the State of Michigan's requirement that for-hire limousine companies and its drivers, but not Defendant Uber Technologies, Inc. ("Uber") or its drivers, abide by the requirements of Michigan's Limousine Transportation Act and vehicle code. Plaintiffs are Patrick F. Mifsud and the company he owns, Entertainment Express, Inc. (collectively "Plaintiffs"), which for over twenty years provided for-hire limousine and motorbus transportation services throughout the metropolitan Detroit area ("Metro Detroit"). (Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1.) Defendants are Uber, Uber drivers identified as John Doe and Jane Doe, and the following State of Michigan Department of Transportation ("MDOT") employees: Sharon Edgar, Administrator of the Office of Passenger Transportation; Jean Ruestman, Manager of MDOT's Program Administration Section; Rob Pearson, Supervisor of MDOT's Bus and Limousine Regulatory Unit; Brian Barnum, an MDOT Commercial Vehicle Safety Specialist; and Michelle Weber-Currie and Robbie Smith, MDOT Regulatory Affairs Analysts (collectively "MDOT Defendants").
In their six-count Complaint, Plaintiffs allege that the MDOT Defendants' failure to require Uber and its drivers to adhere to the requirements of the Limousine Transportation Act and certain specifications of the Michigan Vehicle Code violates Plaintiffs' rights under the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution (Count I). Plaintiffs also allege that the MDOT Defendants retaliated against Plaintiffs in violation of their First Amendment rights after Mifsud voiced complaints about the State's unequal application of its laws (Count II). Plaintiffs' claims alleging constitutional violations are brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
Presently before the Court is the MDOT Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' Complaint pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6). (ECF No. 17.) The motion has been fully briefed. Finding the facts and legal arguments sufficiently presented in the parties' pleadings, the Court is dispensing with oral argument pursuant to Eastern District of Michigan Local Rule 7.1(f). For the reasons that follow, the Court is granting the MDOT Defendants' motion.
I. Standard for Motion to Dismiss
A motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) tests the legal sufficiency of the complaint. RMI Titanium Co. v. Westinghouse Elec. Corp., 78 F.3d 1125, 1134 (6th Cir.1996). Under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2), a pleading must contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint need not contain "detailed factual allegations," but it must contain more than "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of
As the Supreme Court provided in Iqbal and Twombly, "[t]o survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to `state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570, 127 S.Ct. 1955). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955). The plausibility standard "does not impose a probability requirement at the pleading stage; it simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of illegal [conduct]." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556, 127 S.Ct. 1955.
In deciding whether the plaintiff has set forth a "plausible" claim, the court must accept the factual allegations in the complaint as true. Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94, 127 S.Ct. 2197, 167 L.Ed.2d 1081 (2007). This presumption is not applicable to legal conclusions, however. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 668, 129 S.Ct. 1937. Therefore, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Id. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555, 127 S.Ct. 1955).
Ordinarily, the court may not consider matters outside the pleadings when deciding a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss. Weiner v. Klais & Co., Inc., 108 F.3d 86, 88 (6th Cir.1997) (citing Hammond v. Baldwin, 866 F.2d 172, 175 (6th Cir.1989)). A court that considers such matters must first convert the motion to dismiss to one for summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P 12(d). However, "[w]hen a court is presented with a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, it may consider the [c]omplaint and any exhibits attached thereto, public records, items appearing in the record of the case and exhibits attached to [the] defendant's motion to dismiss, so long as they are referred to in the [c]omplaint and are central to the claims contained therein." Bassett v. Nat'l Collegiate Athletic Ass'n, 528 F.3d 426, 430 (6th Cir.2008). Thus, a court may take judicial notice of "other court proceedings" without converting a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment. Buck v. Thomas M. Cooley Law Sch., 597 F.3d 812, 816 (6th Cir.2010) (citing Winget v. J.P. Morgan Chase Bank, N.A., 537 F.3d 565, 575 (6th Cir.2008)).
II. Factual Background
As indicated, Patrick F. Mifsud owns Entertainment Express, Inc., d/b/a Entertainment Limousine ("Entertainment Express"), which has provided for-hire limousine and motorbus transportation services throughout Metro Detroit for over twenty years. (Compl. ¶ 1, ECF No. 1.) Uber also provides for-hire limousine transportation services throughout Metro Detroit, as well as in other Michigan areas, through a mobile phone application. (Id. ¶¶ 4, 22.)
Michigan's Limousine Transportation Act and the Michigan Vehicle Code require limousine and other for-hire transportation companies operating in the State to adhere to certain rules and regulations designed "[t]o ensure the public has access to safe and uniform means of vehicle-for-hire transportation." (Id. ¶ 21.) For example, the Limousine Transportation Act requires "[a] limo carrier of passengers" to obtain an MDOC certificate of authority in order to operate on a public highway. (Id. ¶ 39,
Uber and its drivers knowingly operate in Michigan without complying with these rules. (Id. ¶ 46.) Nevertheless, the MDOT Defendants have never cited nor fined Uber or its drivers for violating the Limousine Transportation Act or the requirements for commercial vehicles under the Michigan Vehicle Code. (Id. ¶ 47.) Plaintiffs assert that this provides Uber and its drivers with a "substantial competitive advantage" over Plaintiffs. (Id. ¶ 52.)
In early to mid-2015, Mifsud complained to various individuals, including Defendants Edgar and Barnum, about MDOT's practice of not enforcing Michigan's laws against Uber or its drivers. (Id. ¶ 54.) Specifically, Mifsud contended that the fines and fees associated with the annual inspections, renewals of Certificates of Authority, and continuous commercial insurance required under the Limousine Transportation Act are unfair and over-burdensome. (Id. ¶ 55.) He also expressed concern that the laws were being applied unequally, as Uber was not required to follow them. (Id. ¶ 56.)
Plaintiffs allege that the MDOT Defendants, in retaliation, "vigorously enforced the Limousine Transportation Act, Motor Bus Transportation Act, and/or Michigan Vehicle Code against Plaintiffs." (Id. ¶ 57.) According to Plaintiffs, this resulted in Plaintiffs' motorbus and limousine operating licenses/Certificates of Authority being revoked on November 5, 2015, rendering Plaintiffs unable to provide for-hire passenger transportation services in Michigan. (Id. ¶ 58.)
III. Applicable Law & Analysis
A. Equal Protection Claim
"The Equal Protection Clause prohibits discrimination by government which either burdens a fundamental right, targets a suspect class, or intentionally treats one differently than others similarly situated without any rational basis for the difference." TriHealth, Inc. v. Bd. of Comm'rs, Hamilton Cnty., Ohio, 430 F.3d 783, 788 (6th Cir.2005) (citing Radvansky v. City of Olmsted Falls, 395 F.3d 291, 312 (6th Cir.2005)). Plaintiffs do not allege infringement of a fundamental right or that they are members of a suspect class. Instead, they rely on a "class of one" theory to support their equal protection claim. (See Pls.' Resp. Br. at 13, ECF No. 30 at Pg ID 401.)
The United States Supreme Court recognized the "class of one" theory in Village of Willowbrook v. Olech, 528 U.S. 562, 120 S.Ct. 1073, 145 L.Ed.2d 1060 (2000). In that case, a property owner asked the Village of Willowbrook to connect her property to the municipal water supply. Id. at 563, 120 S.Ct. 1073. The Village initially conditioned the connection on the property owner granting it a 33-foot easement, even though the Village only required a 15-foot easement from other property owners seeking access to the water supply. Id. After several months, the
The district court granted the Village's motion to dismiss for failure to state a viable claim under the Equal Protection Clause, and the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed. Id. at 563-64, 120 S.Ct. 1073. The Supreme Court affirmed the appellate court's holding, reasoning that its "cases have recognized successful equal protection claims brought by a `class of one,' where the plaintiff alleges that she has been intentionally treated differently from others similarly situated and that there is no rational basis for the difference in treatment." Id. at 564, 120 S.Ct. 1073 (citing Sioux City Bridge Co. v. Dakota Cnty., 260 U.S. 441, 43 S.Ct. 190, 67 S.Ct. 340 (1923); Allegheny Pittsburgh Coal Co. v. Cnty. Comm'n of Webster Cnty., 488 U.S. 336, 109 S.Ct. 633, 102 L.Ed.2d 688 (1989)). Thus, the Court held that the property owner's assertion that the Village imposed a condition on the connection of her property to the municipal water supply unlike the condition imposed on other property owners, in addition to her allegation that the Village's demand was "irrational and wholly arbitrary," sufficiently stated "a claim for relief under traditional equal protection analysis." Id. at 565, 120 S.Ct. 1073.
The "class of one" theory is inapplicable to the facts Plaintiffs allege in their Complaint, however. That is because Plaintiffs are not claiming that the MDOT Defendants treated them differently than other for-hire limousine drivers in the State. Instead, Plaintiffs allege that the MDOT Defendants treat all for-hire limousine drivers in the State, including Plaintiffs, equally except Uber and its drivers. In other words, the "class of one" in this case is comprised of Uber and its drivers, not Plaintiffs. As such, unlike the property owner in Olech, Plaintiffs are "not ... alleged to have been intentionally singled out by government for discriminatory adverse treatment." See TriHealth, 430 F.3d at 788 (finding that "the `class of one' theory is ill-suited to the facts of th[e] case" where the plaintiffs were among several health care providers not receiving the county's distribution of tax levy funds which were awarded exclusively to one health care provider).
Recognizing a viable equal protection claim in this instance would be akin to allowing a driver ticketed for speeding to assert such a claim because not all speeding drivers are stopped and/or ticketed. As the Supreme Court recognized in Engquist v. Oregon Department of Agriculture, 553 U.S. 591, 128 S.Ct. 2146, 170 L.Ed.2d 975 (2008):
Id. at 603-04, 128 S.Ct. 2146. In short, the class-of-one theory of equal protection is not cognizable on the facts presented in Plaintiffs' Complaint.
The Court therefore grants the MDOT Defendants' motion to dismiss Plaintiffs' equal protection claim (Count I).
B. First Amendment Retaliation
"[T]he First Amendment prohibits government officials from subjecting an individual to retaliatory actions ... for speaking out[.]" Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250, 256, 126 S.Ct. 1695, 164 L.Ed.2d 441 (2006) (citing Crawford-El v. Britton, 523 U.S. 574, 592, 118 S.Ct. 1584, 140 L.Ed.2d 759 (1998)); see also Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 597, 92 S.Ct. 2694, 33 L.Ed.2d 570 (1972) (the government may not punish a person or deprive him of a benefit based on his "constitutionally protected speech"). A plaintiff claiming the government has retaliated against him for engaging in protected speech generally must prove three elements:
Thaddeus-X v. Blatter, 175 F.3d 378, 394 (6th Cir.1999) (en banc). The MDOT Defendants seek dismissal of Plaintiffs' First Amendment retaliation claim (Count II), arguing that Plaintiffs' allegations do not identify a sufficient causal connection between their speech and the revocation of their Certificates of Authority.
The MDOT Defendants identify two deficiencies in Plaintiffs' Complaint with respect to causation. First, they point out that Plaintiffs identify only Defendants Edgar and Barnum as individuals to whom Mifsud voiced his complaints, but fail to explain why knowledge of these complaints should be imputed to the remaining defendants. More specifically, Plaintiffs fail to connect the individuals aware of their protected conduct — Edgar and Barnum — to the individuals who issued the citations leading to the revocation of their Certificates of Authority and the Administrative Law Judge who presided over the revocation proceedings and decided to revoke the Certificates of Authority. Plaintiffs allege that "Mifsud's protected speech was a substantial or motivating factor for the adverse actions." (Compl ¶¶ 88-89) However, as the MDOT Defendants indicate, this
Second, Defendants note that Plaintiffs fail to challenge MDOT's probable cause for revoking their Certificates of Authority at the revocation proceedings. In other words, Plaintiffs do not allege that MDOT's underlying factual basis for initiating the regulatory action was unfounded. Moreover, the MDOT Defendants contend, Plaintiffs could not do so where the Administrative Law Judge who ordered the revocations found that Plaintiffs knowingly violated the law.
In Hartman v. Moore, 547 U.S. 250, 126 S.Ct. 1695, 164 L.Ed.2d 441 (2006), the Supreme Court held that a plaintiff bringing a First Amendment retaliation claim against a defendant for inducing a prosecutor to bring charges against the plaintiff must plead and prove the absence of probable cause for the prosecution. Id. at 266, 126 S.Ct. 1695. In Hartman, the plaintiff sued United States Postal Service inspectors and an Assistant United States Attorney, alleging that they initiated a criminal prosecution against him in retaliation for his protected speech, specifically his criticism of the United States Postal Service. Id. at 253-54, 126 S.Ct. 1695. The Supreme Court offered two reasons for holding that the absence of probable cause is a necessary element of the plaintiff's claim.
The first is the "powerful evidentiary significance" of probable cause to a retaliatory-prosecution claim. Id. at 261, 126 S.Ct. 1695. As the Court explained:
Id. at 260-61, 126 S.Ct. 1695. The second reason is that "the requisite causation between the defendant's retaliatory animus and the plaintiff's injury is usually more complex [in a retaliatory prosecution case] than it is in other retaliation cases." Id. at 261, 126 S.Ct. 1695. This complexity is due to the fact that, unlike the typical retaliation case, a retaliatory-prosecution action is brought against an official who "may have influenced the prosecutorial decision but did not himself make it...." Id. at 262, 126 S.Ct. 1695. "Thus, the causal connection required here is not merely between the retaliatory animus of one person and that person's own injurious action, but between the retaliatory animus of one person and the action of another." Id. "[T]he absence of probable cause[,]" the Court reasoned, is the "connection" needed "to bridge the gap between the nonprosecuting government agent's motive and the prosecutor's action, and to address the presumption of prosecutorial regularity." Id. at 263, 126 S.Ct. 1695.
In Barnes v. Wright, 449 F.3d 709 (6th Cir.2006), the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Hartman's "rule sweeps broadly." Id. at 719. The Barnes court therefore granted qualified immunity to law-enforcement defendants who directly initiated an allegedly retaliatory grand
Finding the Supreme Court's rationale for requiring the pleading and proof of probable cause in a retaliatory-prosecution claim applicable, the Sixth Circuit also has held that Hartman's rule applies to allegedly retaliatory regulatory enforcement proceedings. Meadows v. Enyeart, 627 Fed.Appx. 496, 505-06 (6th Cir.2015).
Id. at 505-06.
Here, Plaintiffs have not pleaded an absence of probable cause for the initiation of the administrative proceeding to revoke their Certificates of Authority. Even if Plaintiffs had included such an allegation in their Complaint, the ALJ's decision revoking their Certificates of Authority — of which this Court may take judicial notice — would belie such a claim. See Opoka v. INS, 94 F.3d 392, 394-95 (7th Cir.1996) (citing cases from the Second, Seventh, Ninth, and Eleventh Circuits supporting the "well-settled principle that the decision of another court or agency, including the decision of an administrative law judge, is a proper subject of judicial notice."); see also Manguriu v. Lynch, 794 F.3d 119, (1st Cir.2015) (noting "that courts normally can take judicial notice of agency determinations"); Furnari v. Warden, Allenwood Fed. Corr. Inst., 218 F.3d 250 (3d Cir.2000) ("[I]t is proper for this Court to take judicial notice of decisions of an administrative agency[.]") The ALJ found, by a preponderance of the evidence, that Plaintiffs committed the violations of the Limousine Transportation Act and the Motor Bus Transportation Act, which MDOT submitted into evidence. (Decision & Ord. of Admin. Law Judge at 12, ECF No. 17-4 at Pg ID 145.) The ALJ also found that Plaintiffs' violations were "willful and intentional[.]"
For these reasons, the Court concludes that Plaintiffs fail to state a claim upon which relief can be granted with respect to their First Amendment retaliation claim.