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Jones v. Wilson County

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

April 26, 2017




         Pending is Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 18). Plaintiff has responded and Defendants have replied.[1] As set out below, the motion is GRANTED.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff was a probation office for Wilson County, Tennessee. In a September 5, 2014 letter, Plaintiff's supervisor, Defendant Terry Duncan, informed her that she was being terminated because he had “recently received a complaint from a public defender that [Plaintiff] testified during a court proceeding, speaking on behalf of a . . . counselor.”[2] Specifically, Defendants contend that during a court hearing, Plaintiff was asked “whether a specific criminal defendant could attend a [drug and alcohol] counseling class provided by Ms. Chris Buchanan.”[3]Plaintiff allegedly responded that Ms. Buchanan told her that particular defendant could not attend any of her classes. Ms. Buchanan later advised the defendant's lawyer that she never made such a statement, and the lawyer informed Plaintiff's supervisor. Plaintiff asserts that she never made a false statement to the judge.

         Plaintiff filed this case alleging that Defendants “deprived [her] of her rights secured by the First Amendment” in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Tennessee law.[4]


         Summary judgment is appropriate only when there is no genuine issue of material fact, so that the dispute may be decided on purely legal grounds.[5] The Supreme Court has established guidelines to assist trial courts in determining whether this standard has been met:

The inquiry performed is the threshold inquiry of determining whether there is the need for a trial - whether, in other words, there are any genuine factual issues that properly can be resolved only by a finder of fact because they may reasonably be resolved in favor of either party.[6]

         A court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion[7] and may not “weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter . . . .”[8] The moving party must “identify portions of the record that demonstrate the absence of a genuine dispute over material facts.”[9] It can do this “by presenting affirmative evidence that negates an element of the nonmoving party's claim or by demonstrating ‘an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case.'”[10] If the moving party meets this burden, “the nonmoving party must ‘make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.'”[11] Only disputes over facts that may affect the outcome of the suit under governing law will properly preclude the entry of summary judgment.[12]


         A. First Amendment

         Plaintiff's response focuses on how Defendants handled her termination, that they failed to investigate the allegations of false statements, and the fact that she claims she never said anything false during court. She contends that “open court, public, sworn testimony is always a matter of public concern by a citizen who is required to tell the truth even if done as part of her job.”[13] She also refers to law about a citizen's obligation to speak truthfully in court for the betterment of a society as a whole. Finally, she asserts that she “never speaks up in court without being invited to by the judge or when asked a direct question by the judge. As such, her responses to the judge, in court and on the record, and any testimony she gives to a judge, is protected speech.”[14] All of these arguments miss the point.

         “For a public employee's statements to receive First Amendment protection, the public employee must speak ‘as a citizen' and ‘address[ ] matters of public concern.'”[15] “[W]hen public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline.”[16]

         It is undisputed that Plaintiff was working in her capacity as probation officer (a public employee) when she made the allegedly statements to the court regarding a defendant's eligibility for counseling. Plaintiff's own affidavit concedes that responding to questions in court is one of her duties as a probation officer.[17] Based on the undisputed facts, Plaintiff was not speaking as a citizen for First Amendment purposes, ...

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