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Henry v. Roane County

United States District Court, E.D. Tennessee, Knoxville

May 29, 2018

JIM HENRY, Plaintiff,
v.
ROANE COUNTY, TENNESSEE, Defendant.

          SHIRLEY MAGISTRATE JUDGE

          MEMORANDUM

          CURTIS L. COLLIER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Before 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 motion.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff 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. §§ 54-7-103, 54-7-109(c).

         During 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. ¶ 13.)

         Plaintiff 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 (emphasis added).)

         Defendant 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.[1] 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 governmental entities.

         Plaintiff 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.)

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Summary 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 Cir. 2001).

         To 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).

         The 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).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendant 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 punitive damages.

         A. 42 U.S.C. § 1983

         Under 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).

         Defendant 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.”)

         Defendant 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.[2] (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.

         1. Freedom of Speech Element One: Protected Conduct

         The 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).

         a. Speech on a Matter ...


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