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Johnson v. Pickens County

United States District Court, N.D. Georgia, Gainesville Division

September 12, 2014

JAMES JOHNSON and VIKKI FORD, Plaintiffs,
v.
PICKENS COUNTY, GEORGIA, Defendant.

ORDER

RICHARD W. STORY, District Judge.

This case comes before the Court on Defendant Pickens County, Georgia's Second 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss [9]. After reviewing the record, the Court enters the following Order.

Background

This case arises out of Plaintiffs' termination following their comments made to the Pickens Progress newspaper regarding county funding for legal defense for indigent persons. From January 2009 until their termination in August 2013, Plaintiffs James Johnson and Vikki Ford worked for Pickens County (the "County") as attorneys providing legal defense for indigent persons in proceedings before the Pickens County Juvenile Court. (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7] at 2-4.)

On or about January 7, 2009, Plaintiffs entered into written contracts with the County to provide legal representation to indigent parents and children in proceedings before the Pickens County Juvenile Court. (Id. at 4.) The contracts provided that Johnson would be paid $45, 000 per year; Ford would be paid $40, 000. (Id.) Both contracts provided that waiver or modification of the contracts' terms must be made in writing and signed. (Id. at 4-5.) In 2009 and 2010, the County paid the Plaintiffs the amounts set forth in the contracts. (Id. at 5.) In 2011, the County paid Plaintiffs $30, 000 each; in 2012, the County paid Plaintiffs $20, 000 each; and in 2013, the County paid Plaintiffs a pro-rated monthly amount that would have been equal to $20, 000 annually until Plaintiffs' contracts were terminated on or about August 23, 2013. (Id. at 5.)

The events preceding Plaintiffs' termination took place between October 2012 and August 2013. (Id. at 2-4.) In mid-October 2012, Plaintiffs and another attorney, Karen Voyles, (collectively, the "Attorneys") were interviewed for an article in the Pickens Progress local newspaper regarding the effects of budget cuts on county services. (Id. at 5; see also Ex. A to Defs.' First Mot. to Dismiss, Dkt. [6-1].) In the article, the Attorneys are reported as saying that "cuts to their funding have been so severe they are no longer able to adequately defend clients that are facing having their children taken from them." ([6-1] at 1.) The article reports the drop in the Attorneys' pay from $40, 000 to $20, 000. (Id. at 2.) The article also discusses the Attorneys' objections to being required to ask a judge for extra funding for special expenses, such as mental health evaluations or translation services. (Id.) Additionally, the article reports that the Attorneys "considered a mass resignation to protest the cuts, but didn't out of concern for what would happen to the clients." (Id.) The article further states that the Attorneys "expressed concern that they may not be given another contract because they have spoken out here publicly, but all three expressed sentiments that something has to change." (Id.) The Pickens Progress interviewed Judge John Worcester, Pickens County Juvenile Court judge, by email for the same article. (See id.)

On or about October 25, 2012, Plaintiffs received a letter from Judge Worcester notifying Plaintiffs that their contracts would be terminated as of December 31, 2012. (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7] at 7; Ex. 1 to Am. Compl., Dkt. [7-1].) The letter was also sent to Ms. Voyles and Jennifer Galligan. (Id.) On or about October 29, 2012, Plaintiff Johnson wrote to the Pickens County Commissioner, Robert Jones, on behalf of himself, Plaintiff Ford, and Ms. Voyles, informing Commissioner Jones of Judge Worcester's letter and seeking clarification of whether the Commissioner, as a party to the contract, in fact intended to terminate the contracts. (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7] at 7; Ex. 2 to Am. Compl., Dkt. [7-2].) Also on October 29, 2012, Judge Worcester sent a letter inviting a group of Pickens County indigent defense attorneys to notify him whether they wanted to be considered for contracts for 2013. (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7] at 8; Ex. 3 to Am. Compl., Dkt. [7-3].) That letter was not sent to Plaintiffs, but was sent to Ms. Voyles and Ms. Galligan. (Id.)

On October 31, 2012, Commissioner Jones responded to Plaintiffs' letter, confirming that Judge Worcester's letter had terminated the contracts. (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7] at 8; Ex. 4 to Am. Compl., Dkt. [7-4].) Despite the purported termination of Plaintiffs' contracts, the County later deemed the termination "ineffective" (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7] ¶ 29), and Plaintiffs continued to perform services under the contracts until "the County provided contractually proper notice to Plaintiffs" on June 21, 2013. (Id. at 9.) Plaintiffs stopped performing and the County stopped paying under the contracts in August 2013. (Id.) After the contracts were terminated, Plaintiff Johnson "inquired into" a newly-created position with the Pickens County public defender. (Id. at 2, ¶ 34.) Plaintiff Johnson alleges that he was never considered or interviewed for the position. (Id. at ¶ 42.) The County hired another lawyer who is not a party to this case. (Id.)

Plaintiffs filed suit against the County on December 24, 2013. (Compl., Dkt. [1].) Defendants filed their first Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim on January 21, 2014. (Dkt. [6].) Plaintiffs amended their complaint on February 6, 2014. (Am. Compl., Dkt. [7].) Plaintiffs raise claims related to First Amendment retaliation (Count I) as well as breach of contract claims (Count II). (Id. at 10-13.) Defendants filed the instant Second 12(b)(6) Motion to Dismiss and Brief in Support [9] ("Def.'s Mot. to Dismiss") on February 24, 2014.

Discussion

I. Legal Standard

Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires that a pleading contain a "short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." While this pleading standard does not require "detailed factual allegations, " "labels and conclusions" or "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Ashcroft v. Iqbal , 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly , 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). In order to withstand a motion to dismiss, "a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id . (quoting Twombly , 550 U.S. at 570). A complaint is plausible on its face when the plaintiff pleads factual content necessary for the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the conduct alleged. Id.

At the motion to dismiss stage, "all-well pleaded facts are accepted as true, and the reasonable inferences therefrom are construed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff." Bryant v. Avado Brands, Inc. , 187 F.3d 1271, 1273 n.1 (11th Cir. 1999). However, the same does not apply to legal conclusions set forth in the complaint. Sinaltrainal v. Coca-Cola Co. , 578 F.3d 1252, 1260 (11th Cir. 2009) (citing Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678). "Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal , 556 U.S. at 678. Furthermore, the court does not "accept as true a legal conclusion couched as a factual allegation." Twombly , 550 U.S. at 555.

"The district court generally must convert a motion to dismiss into a motion for summary judgment if it considers materials outside the complaint." D.L. Day v. Taylor , 400 F.3d 1272, 1275-76 (11th Cir. 2005); see also Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(d). However, documents attached to a complaint are considered part of the complaint. Fed.R.Civ.P. 10(c). Documents "need not be physically attached to a pleading to be incorporated by reference into it; if the document's contents are alleged in a complaint and no party questions those contents, [the court] may consider such a document, " provided it is central to the plaintiff's claim. D.L. Day , 400 F.3d at 1276. At the motion to dismiss phase, the Court may also consider "a document attached to a motion to dismiss... if the attached document is (1) ...


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