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Stockdale v. Helper

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

June 13, 2017

LT. PAT STOCKDALE and LT. SHANE DUNNING, Plaintiffs,
v.
KIM HELPER, in her individual capacity, and THE CITY OF FAIRVIEW, TENNESSEE, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER United States District Judge.

         Pending before the court is a Motion to Dismiss filed by defendant District Attorney General Kim Helper (Docket No. 15), to which the plaintiffs, Lt. Pat Stockdale and Lt. Shane Dunning, have filed a Response in opposition (Docket No. 19). For the reasons discussed herein, the motion will be denied.

         BACKGROUND & PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         The plaintiffs are both former Lieutenants with the Fairview Police Department in the municipality of Fairview in Williamson County, Tennessee (the “Department”). They were both promoted to this position in March of 2015 and had unblemished records with the Department. This lawsuit arises from the plaintiffs' allegations that they were suspended, and ultimately terminated, from the Department in retaliation for their public disapproval of certain alleged misconduct that was going on within the Department[2] and based on the personal motivations of the defendants. With respect to defendant Helper, who is the District Attorney General for Williamson County, the plaintiffs allege that she took improper actions to influence the Department to terminate the plaintiffs and that these actions were beyond the scope of her role as prosecutor.

         According to the Complaint, Helper had personal motives for wanting the plaintiffs terminated from their positions, despite the absence of any wrongdoing. Specifically, the Complaint alleges that Helper did not want the plaintiffs to be in competition for promotion to Department Chief, a position she wanted filled by another officer to whom she had promised her support. The Complaint also alleges that Helper's ill will toward the plaintiffs stemmed from their complaints against other Department officers about the misconduct allegedly taking place within the Department. According to the Complaint, Helper participated in a secret meeting with the Fairview Board of Commissioners in February of 2016 that was held in violation of Department protocol. During this meeting, it was decided that the plaintiffs would be placed on an unjustified administrative leave (without the consent of the City Manager, who was legally obligated to make these types of decisions) and that an investigation would be launched by Helper's office into any criminal conduct by the plaintiffs (though none was suspected) in an effort to justify their ultimate termination. At the same time, it was decided that there would not be any criminal investigations of other officers who were suspected of misconduct and had been the subject of the plaintiffs' complaints.

         Following the meeting, on March 1, 2016, the plaintiffs were suspended by the Department, pending the ongoing criminal investigation, and they were told that their suspensions were carried out “to insure the integrity of the investigation, ” though there were no official allegations of misconduct committed by the plaintiffs. (Docket No. 1, ¶ 51). According to the Complaint, the investigation was neither a justifiable reason for the plaintiffs' suspensions under Department policy, nor was it consistent with past decisions to allow other officers to remain on duty while the subject of criminal investigations. The Complaint also alleges that Helper conspired with other Fairview officials to make it appear as though a criminal investigation were being conducted on the entire Department, when really only the plaintiffs were being investigated. Further, Helper maintained the ongoing investigation of the plaintiffs past the point in time when the evidence already exonerated the plaintiffs of any wrongdoing, in the hope of finding some evidence of misconduct that could support their termination. According to the Complaint, there were many communications between Helper and representatives of the City of Fairview about efforts to have the plaintiffs terminated from their positions and prevented from occupying any positions within the Department.

         On July 21, 2016, while they were on administrative leave, the plaintiffs filed an action in the United States District Court for the Middle District of Tennessee, bringing claims against the City of Fairview and individual members of the Fairview Board of Commissioners for: 1) violation of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights to due process, equal protection, and freedom of speech under the First Amendment (pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (“Section 1983”)), 2) violation of the Tennessee Public Protection Act, Tenn. Code Ann. § 50-1-304, 3) Official oppression under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-403, and 4) common law retaliation, defamation, and slander. Stockdale v. The City of Fairview, Case No. 3:16-cv-1945 (the “Prior Action”). The Honorable Kevin Sharp issued a Temporary Restraining Order in the Prior Action, prohibiting the City of Fairview from terminating the plaintiffs' employment, eliminating their positions, hiring or promoting others into the plaintiffs' positions, demoting the plaintiffs, or eliminating the plaintiffs' pay. (Case No. 3:16-cv-1945, Docket No. 7.) In August of 2016, a new City Manager for Fairview, Scott Collins, took office, and the Prior Action was subsequently dismissed with prejudice pursuant to a settlement agreement between the parties. (Case No. 3:16-cv-1945, Docket No. 25.) The plaintiffs were then returned to active duty with the Department on September 1, 2016, and, after that time, the plaintiffs carried out their duties satisfactorily and received no complaints or disciplinary action.

         Following the plaintiffs' reinstatement, however, Helper continued to advise the new City Manager, Collins, that she wanted the police department to be restructured so that officers were assigned according to her preferences, and she threatened to withdraw prosecutorial staffing from the Fairview City Court if her wishes were not followed. Specifically, Helper communicated to Collins that she wanted the plaintiffs removed from their positions. Helper then notified Collins that she would place a Giglio impairment on the plaintiffs with respect to all future prosecutions, [3] though the Complaint alleges that there was no basis for the impairment, as the investigation of the plaintiffs uncovered no misconduct or lack of credibility on the part of the plaintiffs. Helper also allegedly corresponded with the Fairview Mayor about her wishes to have the plaintiffs terminated from their positions. Helper expressed that, even if there were no basis for the Giglio impairment, she had “other reasons” to request the removal of the plaintiffs from their employment. (Docket No. 1, p. 21.) The plaintiffs were ultimately terminated by the Department, and the Giglio impairments were cited as the official grounds for their termination. The Complaint, however, alleges that the real reason for the plaintiffs' termination was the defendants' desire to retaliate against the plaintiffs for their complaints against the Department and their filing of the Prior Action, as well as the pressure exerted on the Department by Helper due to her own personal dislike of the plaintiffs.

         On January 31, 2017, the plaintiffs filed the Complaint in this action against the City of Fairview and Helper. The Complaint brings claims against Helper for 1) violations of the plaintiffs' constitutional rights under Section 1983, 2) retaliation in response to the plaintiffs' exercise of their constitutionally protected rights in filing the Prior Action, 3) Official oppression under Tenn. Code Ann. § 39-16-403, and 4) the following state common law claims: tortious interference with a business relationship (the plaintiffs' employment relationship with the Department and prospective employment relationship with other police departments), defamation, and false light invasion of privacy. (Docket No. 1.) The Complaint seeks compensatory and punitive damages as well as permanent injunctive relief, “enjoining the Defendants from further deprivation of the constitutional rights of the Plaintiffs and any further attempts to unlawfully terminate them from the City of Fairview Police Department.” (Docket No. 1, p. 8.) On March 21, 2017, the City of Fairview filed an Answer. (Docket No. 12.)

         On April 12, 2017, Helper filed the currently pending Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 15), along with a Memorandum in support (Docket No. 16), arguing that the claims against her should be dismissed for lack of jurisdiction under Rule 12(b)(1), based on the doctrine of prosecutorial immunity. Helper also argues that the state law claims for defamation and tortious interference with a business relationship should be dismissed under Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to sufficiently plead certain elements of the claims. Finally, Helper argues that the plaintiffs' claims for injunctive relief are inappropriate and should be denied. On May 10, 2017, the plaintiffs filed a Response in opposition. (Docket No. 19.)

         On June 9, 2017, the City of Fairview filed a Motion to Dismiss (Docket No. 25) along with a Memorandum in support (Docket No. 26). That motion is not yet ripe and will be resolved in a separate opinion.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         In deciding a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6), the court will “construe the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff, accept its allegations as true, and draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff.” Directv, Inc. v. Treesh, 487 F.3d 471, 476 (6th Cir. 2007); Inge v. Rock Fin. Corp., 281 F.3d 613, 619 (6th Cir. 2002). The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure require only that a plaintiff provide “a short and plain statement of the claim that will give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.” Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957). The court must determine only whether “the claimant is entitled to offer evidence to support the claims, ” not whether the plaintiff can ultimately prove the facts alleged. Swierkiewicz v. Sorema N.A., 534 U.S. 506, 511 (2002) (quoting Scheuer v. Rhodes, 416 U.S. 232, 236 (1974)).

         The complaint's allegations, however, “must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). To establish the “facial plausibility” required to “unlock the doors of discovery, ” the plaintiff cannot rely on “legal conclusions” or “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, ” but, instead, the plaintiff must plead “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 55 ...


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