The opinion of the court was delivered by: Judge Campbell
Pending before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 29) filed by Defendants Montgomery County, Tennessee and Sheriff Norman Lewis, in his official and individual capacities. That Motion, which has been fully briefed by the parties, will be granted with respect to all claims, except Plaintiff Gabriel Segovia's retaliation claim under the First Amendment against Montgomery County and Sheriff Lewis in his individual capacity.
Plaintiff was an at-will employee of Montgomery County and was hired as a School Resource Officer (SRO) by the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office on July 16, 1999. From the date of hire until his termination in March 2009, Plaintiff worked as an SRO at three different schools in the Clarksville-Montgomery County School system. He was also an elected member of the Clarksville City Council from January 1997 to March 2005, and served as Mayor pro tem in 2003-2004.
SROs are Deputy Sheriffs assigned on a full time basis to the local middle and high schools. They are there to maintain order, prevent crime, and investigate criminal activity which occurs on school property. They are also responsible for establishing a rapport with students, faculty and the community.
During the 2008-2009 school year, Plaintiff was assigned as the SRO at Clarksville High School. For some of this time, Dr. B.J. Worthington was the interim Principal at the school.
After assuming his duties as interim Principal, Dr. Worthington became concerned that Plaintiff lacked the intuition and problem-solving skills needed of an SRO in the high school setting. Among Plaintiff's problems, in Dr. Worthington's view, was that Plaintiff did not handle problems himself but instead brought them to the administration to resolve. In an effort to address his concerns about Plaintiff, Dr. Worthington contacted Lt. Ron Farley of the Montgomery County Sheriff's Office to see if Lt. Farley could spend a day with Plaintiff at the school and give him some guidance on being an effective SRO. Lt. Farley went to Clarksville High School on December 1 and 2, 2008, and, while there, observed the school traffic, the interaction of the faculty and students, and Plaintiff's activities. Afterwards, Lt. Farley met with Dr. Worthington and Plaintiff to report his observations and make recommendations. Lt. Farley recommended that Plaintiff improve his visibility on the school grounds, improve his management and supervision of the student parking lot, become more alert and proactive, and "[c]ontinue to read and retain on law enforcement issues, policies, laws and routine situation" because "[k]nowledge will always help you advance your career." (Farley Aff. Ex. 1 ¶4). Lt. Farley's observations and recommendations were reduced to writing and forwarded to Plaintiff's supervisors. Sheriff Lewis was made aware of Lt. Farley's findings.
Plaintiff was not disciplined based upon Lt. Farley's observations or report. According to Plaintiff, Lt. Farley told him that Clarksville High School wanted Plaintiff to perform his duties in a manner which was somewhat different from the way that SROs handled their duties at the other schools to which Plaintiff had been assigned in the past.
On February 18, 2009, THE LEAF CHRONICLE, a Clarksville newspaper, published a letter to the editor written by Plaintiff. In the letter, Plaintiff criticized the Mayor's "fly-by-night management style," and criticized the City Council for voting to spend "tens of millions of dollars" on a marina project that was located on property adjacent to the Mayor's property. He also wrote that the Clarksville Department of Electricity was in a "financial mess." Plaintiff further opined that no one, including the City Council and the editorial board of THE LEAF CHRONICLE, had the gumption to challenge the Mayor's "power to do whatever he wants." In the last sentence before closing, Plaintiff wrote, "[t]hese are my personal opinions as a private citizen." (Pf. Depo. Ex. 5).
Two days after the letter was published, Plaintiff was at the Sheriff's Office for a regularly scheduled weekly SRO meeting. What transpired next is the subject of some dispute.
Defendants claim that Plaintiff was asked to meet with Sheriff Lewis in an office across the hall from the meeting room. During their conversation, Sheriff Lewis claims he "counseled" Plaintiff about the cooperative relationship between Montgomery County and Clarksville governmental agencies. Sheriff Lewis also contends he told Plaintiff that, while Plaintiff had the right to express his personal opinions, in the future Plaintiff should consider the fact that, as a former councilman, Plaintiff was a well-known local figure, and also consider the fact that he was an employee of the Sheriff's office. When the conversation ended, Sheriff Lewis claims he considered the matter closed and it played no part in any employment decision regarding Plaintiff. (Lewis Aff. ¶ 4).
For his part, Plaintiff alleges that he was ordered out of the SRO meeting and "yelled" at and "berated" by Sheriff Lewis for writing the letter. Plaintiff asserts that Sheriff Lewis "angrily" told him that he could no longer write letters to the newspaper which attacked public officials; that the Sheriff had been asked why he allowed Plaintiff to write such a letter; and that the Sheriff had been taking "heat" because of the letter.*fn1 Plaintiff claims he then told the Sheriff that he had a constitutional right to free speech and that he would be running for Mayor during the next election, but the Sheriff told Plaintiff he worked for the Sheriff at that point in time. When the Sheriff asked Plaintiff if they had an understanding about not writing any more letters, Plaintiff claims he reiterated that he planned to run for Mayor, to which the Sheriff again asked if they had an understanding. Ultimately, Plaintiff capitulated and said that they did, in fact, have an understanding about Plaintiff writing letters to the newspaper. (Pf. Aff. ¶¶ 20-28).
On March 10, 2009, Plaintiff's supervisor, Sgt. Clifton went to Clarksville High School to follow Plaintiff around and check up on him. Plaintiff asserts that this was the first and only time that Sgt. Clifton came to the high school. Plaintiff also claims that, at the school, Sgt. Clifton repeatedly asked him why he had so many Facebook friends and suggested Plaintiff did so to get votes in the upcoming mayoral election. Plaintiff further asserts that Sgt. Clifton told him that he (Sgt. Clifton) and Jennifer Anderson, an Assistant Principal, laughed about Plaintiff's suitability to be Mayor. (Pf. Aff. ¶¶32-38).
The same day as Sgt. Clifton's visit, the school administrators at Clarksville High School wrote a formal complaint addressed to Sheriff Lewis about Plaintiff's job performance. The complaint outlined a number of concerns and indicated that, despite Lt. Farley's efforts, Plaintiff was not an effective SRO. The administrators asked that Plaintiff be reassigned to another position away from Clarksville High School.
Plaintiff was provided a copy of the complaint and given an opportunity to respond. He claims that up until he received a copy of the complaint, none of the administrators who had signed the complaint had ever expressed concerns to him about the way he performed his duties as an SRO.
On March 20, 2009, ten days after the complaint was sent to Sheriff Lewis, the Sheriff's Office was notified by a reporter at the THE LEAF CHRONICLE that Plaintiff had allegedly improperly texted students. That same day, Sheriff Lewis initiated an Internal Affairs investigation of Plaintiff to look into that allegation, as well as the complaints made by the administrators about Plaintiff's performance as an SRO. Plaintiff was placed on paid administrative leave pending the conclusion of the investigation.
From March 21 through March 25, 2009, Investigators John Stone and Cliff Smith conducted the investigation, during which they recorded interviews of 36 people, and received statements from three individuals. Based upon the statements which were made, the investigation expanded beyond the allegations contained in the complaint from the administrators and the allegation of improper texting, and included allegations that Plaintiff (1) was dishonest (by, among other things, not being where he claimed to be, and falsely claiming that he had dated the daughter of a school Principal);
(2) had "personal pictures of a romantic nature" on a work computer; (3) disobeyed a direct order to have no contact with Sheriff department employees after being placed on administrative leave;
(4) had engaged in a dating and/or romantic relationship with a student; (5) had attended parties with students and used drugs in their presence; (6) turned a blind eye towards students skipping school to leave for lunch; and (7) was "not suited to law enforcement work." (Docket No. 32-5).
Included among those interviewed was each of the administrators who had signed the complaint. Principal Phyliss Casebolt claimed Plaintiff was not a good fit for the SRO position at Clarksville High School and that she was constantly having to remind Plaintiff what he needed to do and where he needed to be. Each of the Vice Principals also expressed concerns: Stacie Batson did not feel like Plaintiff could be relied upon in a crisis; Jennifer Anderson felt that Plaintiff was slow to react in some circumstances; and Michael Gibson reported at least two occasions when Plaintiff falsely reported his location. Further, during the investigation, two students admitted to sending and receiving text messages from Plaintiff.*fn2
Ultimately, Investigators Stone and Smith rejected the allegations that Plaintiff had dated or had a romantic relationship with a student, that he had allowed students to skip school for lunch, and that he had partied with or used drugs in the presence of students. However, the investigators sustained the charges that Plaintiff was dishonest, was insubordinate for talking with a Sheriff's employee during the investigation, had inappropriate pictures on his work computer, and text messaged students. As for the allegation that Plaintiff was not suited for police work, the investigators indicated that the consensus among those interviewed appeared to be that Plaintiff "is a good person, but not a good officer." (Docket No. 32-5 at 11).
Allegedly based upon the complaint of the Clarksville High School administration and the conclusion of the Internal Affairs investigation, Sheriff Lewis decided to terminate Plaintiff's employment. Plaintiff was terminated on March 30, 2009, ostensibly for dishonesty, insubordination, and conduct unbecoming a member of the Montgomery County's Sheriff's Department.
II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARDS
A party may obtain summary judgment if the evidence establishes there are not any genuine issues of material fact for trial and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c); Covington v. Knox County School Sys., 205 F.3d 912, 914 (6th Cir. 2000). The moving party bears the initial burden of satisfying the court that the standards of Rule 56 have been met. See Martin v. Kelley, 803 F.2d 236, 239 n.4 (6th Cir. 1986). The ultimate question to be addressed is whether there exists any genuine issue of material fact that is disputed. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); Covington, 205 F.3d at 914 (citing Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 325 (1986)). If so, summary judgment is inappropriate.
To defeat a properly supported motion for summary judgment, the nonmoving party must set forth specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact for trial. If the party does not so respond, summary judgment will be entered if appropriate. Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(e). The nonmoving party's burden of providing specific facts demonstrating that there remains a genuine issue of material fact for trial is triggered once the moving party shows an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. A genuine issue exists "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, the Court must construe the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, drawing all justifiable inferences in its favor. See Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986).
As a result of his termination, Plaintiff filed suit asserting federal constitutional claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and assorted state law claims. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendants' actions (1) constituted retaliation in violation of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, (2) violated Plaintiff's First Amendment right to "political association," and (3) deprived Plaintiff of property and his interest in continued employment under the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Those claims are brought against Montgomery County and Sheriff Lewis in both his official and individual capacity. Additionally, Plaintiff alleges that he was defamed*fn3 and wrongfully discharged in violation of state law.
Defendants move for summary judgment on each of Plaintiff's claims. They also seek dismissal of the claims against Sheriff Lewis in his official capacity and assert that Sheriff Lewis is entitled to qualified immunity on the individual capacity claims against him. In response, "Plaintiff waives taking issue regarding" his Fourteenth Amendment due process claims, as well as his state law claims (Docket No. 36 at 23 &25), and, accordingly, summary judgment is granted on those claims. Plaintiff does, however, object to dismissal of his First Amendment retaliation and political association claims. He also objects to dismissal of his First Amendment official capacity claims against Sheriff Lewis and argues further that Sheriff Lewis is not entitled to qualified immunity.
Prior to reaching the merits of the remaining claims, however, the Court first addresses an argument raised by Defendants in their reply brief. Defendants devote nearly half of their reply to their contention that this Court should disregard certain portions of Plaintiff's ...