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Larson v. City of Algood

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

July 3, 2019




         In these three consolidated actions, [1] Defendants have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment on all of Plaintiffs' claims. (Case Nos. 2:17-cv-00079, Doc. No. 40; 2:17-cv-00080, Doc. No. 50; 2:18-cv-00022, Doc. No. 35). Those Motions have been fully briefed by the parties and, for the reasons that follow, will be granted with respect to Plaintiffs' federal claims, but the Court will decline to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over their state law claims.

         I. Background

         Just looking at Plaintiffs' counter-statement of facts, one might guess that this is a complicated class action, or a multi-district litigation (MDL) case. It is not. It is a case about three former employees of the City of Algood (“Algood” or “City”), Tennessee who claim they were unlawfully discharged. Nevertheless, and for reasons that could probably never be adequately explained, Plaintiffs have filed a 78-page, 438-paragraph Statement of Undisputed Facts (Doc. No. 79).

         This Court's Local Rules provide that, in response to a motion for summary judgment and its accompanying statement of facts, “the non-movant's response may contain a concise statement of any additional facts that the non-movant contends are material and as to which the non-movant contends there exists a genuine issue to be tried.” L.R. 56.01(c). Despite Plaintiffs' claims to the contrary, [2] the facts they present are not concise, some are not additional, and many are simply not material.

         The first 12 pages and 66 paragraphs of Plaintiffs' statement consist of what can only be characterized as a lengthy summary of Justin Medlin's deposition testimony. This is followed by a 12-page, 71-paragraph summary of Vaughn Larson's deposition testimony, and then a 4½-page, 40-paragraph summary of Karen Bohannon's deposition testimony. Next, the statement turns its attention to the individual Defendants' deposition testimony with 9 pages and 56 paragraphs devoted to Gary Harris, and then a 12 ½-page 62-paragraph summary of Scott Bilbrey's testimony. This is followed by 72 pages consisting of 108 paragraphs that primarily summarize Keith Morrison's deposition testimony, but also includes excerpts from Algood's handbook, and the entirety of a letter from Plaintiffs' counsel that Morrison received from the City Attorney. The remaining 5 pages and 18 paragraphs are devoted to recounting a press conference where Plaintiffs' terminations[3] were announced, including setting forth verbatim a news story published February 24, 2017.

         As can be expected when “factual” statements are based almost exclusively upon deposition testimony, many of the statements are nothing more than opinions, beliefs and speculations. Other statements contain interpretations of law, masquerading as facts. None of this is proper, nor helpful.

         No doubt, somewhere within Plaintiffs' colossal filing are actual, disputed facts that support their respective positions, but it is not the Court's duty to sift through that filing to determine what those may be. See, Emerson v. Novartis Pharm. Corp., 446 Fed.Appx. 733, 736 (6th Cir. 2011) (noting that while “there might have been evidence in the record . . . to create a material question of fact . . . it was not the district court's duty to track down those facts”); Finley v. Kelly, ___ F.Supp.3d ____, ___, No. 3:19-CV-00129, 2019 WL 2482159, at *7 (M.D. Tenn. June 14, 2019) (internal citation omitted) (explaining that, in considering the record, a court is “not like a boar ‘hunting for truffles,' . . . or a gold prospector looking for nuggets”). Instead, in determining whether genuine disputed material facts exist, the Court needs to know the time, not how to build a clock, and certainly not one the size of Big Ben.

         Nevertheless, the Court has reviewed all of the filings including Plaintiffs' Statement of Facts (“PSOF”) and Defendants' responses thereto (Doc, No. 83) and Defendants' Statement of Facts (“DSOF”) and Plaintiffs' responses thereto (Doc. No. 77). From those filings and based on the record as a whole, the following appear to be the relevant facts:

         Medlin, Larson, and Bohannon all worked for the City of Algood. Medlin was a police officer and most recently a Detective Sergeant. Larson had dual roles, working as both the City Recorder and City Clerk. Bohannon worked for the Public Works Department as a water meter reader. (PSOF ¶¶ 47, 145, 319).

         Defendants, too, worked for the City. Gary Harris was a police officer who eventually became Chief of Police; Scott Bilbrey was the Mayor, and Keith Morrison was the City Manager. (Id. ¶¶ 33, 35, 236).

         In all, the City has approximately 30 employees, of whom a dozen or so work on the police force. (Doc. No. 78-1 Medlin Depo. at 115). There are no contracts of employment, and the City Handbook explicitly states that it does not create any contractual rights. (DSOF ¶ 5).

         During his employment with the City, Medlin spoke with Bohannon in person and via cell phone. Some of those conversations occurred while they were on duty. He also texted both Bohannon and Larson and sent sexually explicit images of his anatomy to both women, including pictures of his penis. (PSOF ¶ 11). Medlin also used his cell phone to receive and store sexually explicit picture and messages that he received from Larson and Bohannon. (DSOF ¶¶ 3, 4).

         The parties dispute who owned the cell phone, with Defendants claiming it belonged to the City. Medlin asserts the cell phone was given to him by Harris after Harris purchased it from the City, and it was Medlin's belief that he could do with it as he pleased. (PSOF ¶ 12). Regardless, it is undisputed that the City paid for the cellular service that Medlin used. (Id. ¶¶ 15, 16).

         Medlin's relationship with Bohannon and Larson extended beyond these sexually-charged conversations and electronic communications. He had a sexual relationship with both women. (Id. ¶¶ 10, 7). The sexual activity with Larson occurred off-duty. (Id. ¶ 88). With Bohannon, the location and time of such activity was not so limited and discrete, as they had sexual relations several time at work while both were on duty and, at least one time, at City Hall. (PSOF ¶ 10). In addition to those two women, Medlin sent sexually explicit texts and photos to at least four other women while he was on duty as an Algood police officer. (Doc. No. 55-1, Medlin Depo. at 22-24).

         At some point, Harris received a complaint from his cousin, Tammy Sheldon, regarding a sexually explicit picture Medlin had sent her via Facebook. (PSOF ¶ 204). On January 11, 2017, Medlin was summoned to a meeting with Harris, during which Harris told him that he had received a complaint and showed Medlin the picture. Harris also said that he had spoken with Morrison who instructed Harris to send Medlin home. (Doc. No. 78-1, Medlin Depo. at 72). At that time, Medlin was placed on paid leave pending an investigation.

         As the investigation unfolded, Medlin hired a lawyer and requested a hearing. The City agreed to that request and scheduled a pre-termination hearing. (DSOF ¶ 9). However, on February 10, 2017, immediately before the hearing, Medlin submitted a resignation letter addressed to the City Attorney, and the hearing was cancelled. (PSOF ¶ 3).

         Medlin claims he resigned because he “felt like he had to . . . get the benefits he would otherwise not be entitled to if he had been terminated, ” including pay for accrued leave time. (PSOF ¶ 23). Medlin also believed that any hearing would be a mere formality because he would be fired no matter what he said. (Id. ¶ 24). This belief apparently stemmed from the fact that, while Medlin had supported Harris' bid to become police chief, the two had since had a falling-out. In fact, Harris vowed to “get rid” of Medlin because Medlin was too close to City Council, and Harris believed that Medlin was responsible for an investigation into the alleged fixing of traffic tickets by Harris. (Id. ¶ 25).

         After Medlin's resignation, Bilbrey confronted Larson and Bohannon separately on February 21, 2017. Bilbrey met with Larson in her office and told her that “sexting messages” involving Medlin were going to be released to the public, the City had copies of those messages, and that anybody involved in the situation would be terminated. Larson asked to be presented with proof supporting the allegations, and Bilbrey gave her printed copies of the messages that she and Medlin had exchanged. At the conclusion of the meeting, Bilbrey told Larson that she was terminated. The City Council ratified Larson's termination on March 14, 2017. (PSOF ¶¶ 101, 102; DSOF ¶¶ 20-23)

         A similar scenario played out in relation to Bohannon. Bilbrey met with her in her office at City Hall, informed her that Medlin had exchanged and stored inappropriate sexually explicit messages on his phone, told her that she was one of the individuals involved, and handed her printed copies of the messages that she had exchanged with Medlin. Bilbrey told Bohannon that she was terminated and that she should collect her things and leave. Bohannon complied. (PSOF 162-171; DSOF ¶¶ 13-14).

         On February 24, 2017, Bilbrey held a press conference and announced the investigation and its results.[4] This was a first for Bilbrey, as he had never before held a press conference in relation to the termination of an Algood employee. (PSOF ¶ 54).

         During the press conference, Bilbrey stated that he would have fired Medlin had he not resigned and, while he did not mention either Larson or Bohannon, he stated that the City Clerk and a meter reader were fired. According to Plaintiffs, Bilbrey also made several false statements during the press conference, among them that (1) Medlin was colluding with city council members to oust Harris and appoint another person as chief; (2) certain police officers had been improperly fraternizing with council members; (3) Medlin had been involved with 10, 000 women; (4) Medlin had affairs with married women; and (5) thousands of images were exchanged during the course of the “sexting” scandal.[5] (PSOF ¶ 53, 55-57; Doc. No. 80 at 16). The press conference was covered by the local media, including News Talk 94.1, which published an internet story about the press conference the next day. In it, the article quoted Bilbrey as saying Medlin had sexual relationships with multiple women, including two city employees and a city council woman, the investigation involved the use of a “city-owned cell phone;” that Harris had been the target of some sort of conspiracy involving city council members, and that Bilbrey believed “there was wrongdoing done and a deliberate misuse of city devices.” (PSOF ¶¶ 423-427).

         Neither Larson nor Bohannon requested a hearing in relation to their termination. Nor did any of the Plaintiffs file a grievance. (DSOF ¶¶ 14-21). Instead, they filed separate lawsuits alleging primarily the same federal and state law claims. All allege that they were denied procedural and substantive due process in accordance the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.[6] They also allege violations of their First Amendment right to free speech and association. They also bring state law claims for false light invasion of privacy, and the intentional infliction of emotional distress. Finally, Medlin brings an additional claim for constructive discharge in violation of the Public Employee Political Freedom Act of 1980, Tenn. Code. Ann. § 8-50-601, et seq.

         II. Summary Judgment Standards

         In considering the present Motions for Summary Judgment, the Court does “not act as [a] super personnel department, ” Lee v. City of Columbus, 636 F.3d 245, 258 (6th Cir. 2011), and second-guess the wisdom of the City Fathers' (and Mothers') decisions regarding employees who may have thought they were working in quite the little Peyton Place. Rather, in reviewing a motion for summary judgment, this Court only considers the narrow question of whether there are “genuine issues as to any material fact and [whether] the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law, ” Fed.R.Civ.P. ...

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