United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville
SHIRLEY MAGISTRATE JUDGE
L. COLLIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
the Court is Defendant Roane County, Tennessee's motion
for summary judgment on all of Plaintiff Jim Henry's
claims. (Doc. 17.) Plaintiff responded in opposition (Doc.
23), and Defendant replied (Doc. 24). The Court will
GRANT IN PART and DENY IN
PART Defendant's motion for summary judgment
(Doc. 17). The Court will GRANT
Defendant's motion as to Plaintiff's state-law claim
and his claim for punitive damages. The Court will
DENY the remainder of Defendant's
worked for Defendant in the Roane County Highway Department
(the “Department”) from 1985 until 2016. Dennis
Ferguson was first elected to the position of Roane County
Road Superintendent (the “Road Superintendent”)
in 2012. He thereby became Plaintiff's boss. In addition,
by state law, a county road superintendent is
“authorized to determine the total number of employees
of the highway department, to determine personnel policies,
hours of work, to establish job classifications, and to
establish policies and wages within the
classifications.” Tenn. Code Ann. §§
the 2012 election, Plaintiff had supported a different
candidate, Brian Mullins. Four years later, when Mr. Ferguson
ran for reelection, Plaintiff again openly supported Mr.
Mullins as a candidate for Road Superintendent. According to
Defendant, Plaintiff was “disruptive . . . to the
functioning and discipline of the . . . Department” and
several employees complained to Mr. Ferguson about
Plaintiff's activities. (Doc. 17-1 [Ferguson Decl.]
¶¶ 8, 10.) Plaintiff disputes these allegations.
Mr. Ferguson terminated Plaintiff's employment on April
28, 2016, allegedly because of Plaintiff's
“constant disruptive influence on [Mr. Ferguson's]
staff, . . . employees, and . . . unit.” (Id.
filed a complaint against Defendant on December 31, 2016,
alleging that during the “spring of 2016, [Plaintiff],
on his private and personal time, assisted and helped [Mr.]
Mullins for Road Superintendent through campaigning and
helping install campaign signs” and that Plaintiff
“was terminated due to his political beliefs and
political affiliation.” (Doc. 1 [Compl.] ¶¶
5, 13.) Plaintiff claimed his termination violated 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983 and Tennessee Code Annotated § 2-19-134.
(Id. ¶¶ 11, 12.) By leave of Court (Doc.
29), Plaintiff filed an amended complaint on May 14, 2018,
asserting the same two causes of action, but clarifying that
he “was terminated due to his political beliefs,
political affiliation, political speech, and/or political
conduct.” (Doc. 30 [Am. Compl.] ¶ 13
filed its motion for summary judgment on September 18, 2017.
(Doc. 17.) As to Plaintiff's claim under 42 U.S.C. §
1983, Defendant argues there was no constitutional violation
because Plaintiff's speech was not protected under the
First Amendment, Plaintiff's affiliation with Mr.
Mullins's campaign was not a substantial factor causing
his termination, and Plaintiff would have been terminated
even without his affiliation with Mr. Mullins. Defendant
further argues it cannot be held liable under 42 U.S.C.
§ 1983 because it did not have a policy, practice, or
procedure that caused any violation of Plaintiff's
constitutional association or speech rights. As to Tennessee
Code Annotated § 2-19-134, Plaintiff argues the statute
creates no private cause of action and Defendant did not
violate the statute in any case. Last, Defendant moves for
summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim for punitive
damages because punitive damages cannot be awarded against
responded on February 15, 2018, contesting Defendant's
entitlement to summary judgment on Plaintiff's claim
under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Doc. 23.) Plaintiff did not
respond to Defendant's arguments regarding Tennessee Code
Annotated § 2-19-134 or punitive damages. Defendant
replied on February 22, 2018. (Doc. 24.)
STANDARD OF REVIEW
judgment is proper when “the movant shows that there is
no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is
entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P.
56(a). The moving party bears the burden of demonstrating no
genuine issue of material fact exists. Celotex Corp. v.
Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986); Leary v.
Daeschner, 349 F.3d 888, 897 (6th Cir. 2003). The Court
should view the evidence, including all reasonable
inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving
party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio
Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986); Nat'l Satellite
Sports, Inc. v. Eliadis Inc., 253 F.3d 900, 907 (6th
survive a motion for summary judgment, “the non-moving
party must go beyond the pleadings and come forward with
specific facts to demonstrate that there is a genuine issue
for trial.” Chao v. Hall Holding Co., Inc.,
285 F.3d 415, 424 (6th Cir. 2002). Indeed, a
“[plaintiff] is not entitled to a trial on the basis of
mere allegations.” Smith v. City of
Chattanooga, No. 1:08-cv-63, 2009 WL 3762961, at *2-3
(E.D. Tenn. Nov. 4, 2009) (explaining the court must
determine whether “the record contains sufficient facts
and admissible evidence from which a rational jury could
reasonably find in favor of [the] plaintiff”). In
addition, should the non-moving party fail to provide
evidence to support an essential element of its case, the
movant can meet its burden of demonstrating no genuine issue
of material fact exists by pointing out such failure to the
court. Street v. J.C. Bradford & Co., 886 F.2d
1472, 1479 (6th Cir. 1989).
Court's role at summary judgment is limited to
determining whether the case contains sufficient evidence
from which a jury could reasonably find for the non-movant.
Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242,
248-49 (1986). If the Court concludes a fair-minded jury
could not return a verdict in favor of the non-movant based
on the record, the Court should grant summary judgment.
Id. at 251-52; Lansing Dairy, Inc. v. Espy,
39 F.3d 1339, 1347 (6th Cir. 1994).
seeks judgment as a matter of law on Plaintiff's cause of
action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, his cause of action under
Tennessee Code Annotated § 2-19-134, and his request for
42 U.S.C. § 1983
42 U.S.C. § 1983, a plaintiff's prima facie case
consists of three elements: (1) the plaintiff “engaged
in constitutionally protected speech or conduct”; (2)
an adverse action was taken against the plaintiff “that
would deter a person of ordinary firmness from continuing to
engage in that conduct”; and (3) there was a causal
connection between the conduct and the adverse action,
meaning “the adverse action was motivated at least in
part by” the protected activity. Dye v. Office of
the Racing Comm'n, 702 F.3d 286, 294 (6th Cir.
2012); see also Sowards v. Loudon Cty., 203 F.3d
426, 431 (6th Cir. 2000). If the plaintiff establishes a
prima facie case, the burden then “shifts to the
employer to demonstrate ‘by a preponderance of the
evidence that the employment decision would have been the
same absent the protected conduct.'” Dye,
702 F.3d at 294 (quoting Eckerman v. Tenn. Dep't of
Safety, 636 F.3d 202, 208 (6th Cir. 2010)). Unlike the
familiar McDonnell Douglas framework, the burden
does not then shift back to the plaintiff to show pretext.
Id. at 295. Evidence of pretext may, however, be
relevant in considering whether a defendant has met its
burden to show the adverse employment decision would have
occurred even without the protected conduct. See,
e.g., Hodges v. Van Buren Cty., 227 F.Supp.3d
907, 920 n.14 (E.D. Tenn. 2017).
does not dispute that Plaintiff's support of Mr.
Mullins's candidacy is constitutionally protected conduct
satisfying the first element of Plaintiff's prima facie
case under a freedom-of-association theory. See
Sowards, 203 F.3d at 432 (“Support of a political
candidate falls within the scope of the right of political
association.”). Nor does Defendant dispute that
Plaintiff's termination constitutes an adverse action
satisfying the second element of his prima facie case under a
freedom-of-speech or a freedom-of-association theory. See
Dye, 702 F.3d at 303 (“It is elemental that
terminations are adverse employment actions.”)
attacks several other parts of Plaintiff's Section 1983
case, however. As to Plaintiff's freedom-of-speech claim,
Defendant attacks the first element of the prima facie case,
whether there was constitutionally protected activity. (Doc.
18 at 9-13.) As to Plaintiff's freedom-of-association
claim, Defendant attacks the third element of the prima facie
case, causation. (Doc. 18 at 6-8.) Defendant next argues
that, even if Plaintiff has established a prima facie case
and the burden of proof shifts to Defendant, Defendant can
prove Plaintiff still would have been terminated even if he
had not engaged in the protected conduct. (Doc. 18 at 8-9.)
Finally, Defendant argues there is no basis for municipal
liability under Section 1983 because Plaintiff has not shown
a policy or custom that caused any violation of
Plaintiff's constitutional rights. (Doc. 18 at 13-15.)
The Court addresses these four arguments below.
Freedom of Speech Element One: Protected Conduct
first element of a prima facie freedom-of-speech case is that
the plaintiff engaged in protected speech. Dye, 702
F.3d at 294. This involves a two-part inquiry. Scarbrough
v. Morgan Cty. Bd. of Educ., 470 F.3d 250, 255 (6th Cir.
2006). First, the court must determine “whether the
employee's speech ‘may be fairly characterized as
constituting speech on a matter of public
concern.'” Id. (quoting Rose v.
Stephens, 291 F.3d 917, 920 (6th Cir. 2002)). Second, if
the speech is of public concern, the court must apply the
balancing test of Pickering v. Board of Education,
391 U.S. 563 (1968), “to determine if the
employee's free speech interests outweigh the efficiency
interests of the government as [an] employer.”
Scarbrough, 470 F.3d at 255 (quoting Rose,
291 F.3d at 920).
Speech on a Matter ...