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Ponsell v. Royal

United States District Court, S.D. Georgia, Mancross Division

March 17, 2015

JODY L. PONSELL, Plaintiff,
v.
RANDY F. ROYAL, in his individual and official capacity as Sheriff, Office of the Sheriff for Ware County, Georgia; REBECCA WILLIAMS in her individual and official capacity as Deputy Sheriff, Office of the Sheriff for Ware County, Georgia; and WARE COUNTY, GEORGIA, Defendants.

ORDER

LISA GODBEY WOOD, Chief District Judge.

After Plaintiff Jody L. Ponsell was relieved of his duties as Captain of Ware County Sheriff's Office's criminal investigation division, he filed a complaint alleging federal claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and other state law claims. See Dkt. no. 1. Presently before the Court are Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's complaint in its entirety except for certain claims against Defendant Royal (Dkt. no. 10), Motion for Sanctions (Dkt. no. 21), and Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. no. 22). At this juncture, only the Motion to Dismiss is ripe for adjudication. For reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part; it is granted as to all claims against Defendants Williams and Ware County; it is also granted as to all claims contested in the motion to dismiss against Defendant Royal except for the claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress against Defendant Royal in his individual capacity, for which the motion to dismiss is denied.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND

Plaintiff was hired as a detective by former Sheriff Ronnie McQuaig on April 8, 2008. When McQuaig did not run for reelection, Defendant Royal successfully ran for the position of Sheriff of Ware County, Georgia. As Sheriff, Defendant Royal promoted Plaintiff twice, first to Lieutenant and then to Captain of the criminal investigation division at the Ware County Sheriff's Office. Dkt. no. 1, ¶¶ 20-28.

During Plaintiff's tenure he alleges that he repeatedly observed several violations of criminal law, civil law, and office policies. Plaintiff reported these offenses in writing to Defendant Royal. Id. at ¶¶ 29-30.

Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Royal allowed Sheriff County employees subordinate to Plaintiff's rank to ignore Plaintiff's authority with impunity; Defendant Williams, a detective under Plaintiff's supervision in the criminal investigation division, had stolen county funds; Defendant Williams ignored Plaintiff's authority and disregarded his direct orders; Defendant Williams "illegally and surreptitiously" recorded employees of the Office of the Sheriff in a secure area; Defendant Royal "essentially" granted Defendant Williams immunity from prosecution from the alleged theft of county funds; and Defendants Royal and Williams "conspired" to retaliate against Plaintiff. Plaintiff alleges that he reported these offenses in writing to Defendant Royal, and that Defendant Royal "did nothing." Id. at ¶¶ 29-51.

In addition to his reports on Defendant Williams, Plaintiff claims he witnessed other office misconduct tolerated or committed by Defendant Royal, such as the suppression of an investigation into a Waycross Police Department officer who knowingly enrolled a sex offender into the local high school; maintaining a policy of not fingerprinting certain arrested individuals so that they are not saddled with a criminal record; a policy of falsifying records to cover-up the fingerprinting policy; an officer's theft of a rifle held as evidence at the Sherriff's Office; and a general policy of covering up crimes committed by Sheriff's officers to avoid negative media attention. Id. at ¶ 52.

Plaintiff claims that "after this long, sordid history of Defendant Royal's acquiescence to the continuing criminality and civil and policy abuses among Defendant Royal's employees, Mr. Ponsell requested in writing, on or about March 25, 2013, reassignment to another division where Mr. Ponsell believed less corruption existed." Id. at ¶ 53.

But instead of being reassigned, Plaintiff was put on administrative leave with pay. At a later meeting, Defendant Royal terminated Plaintiff's employment with the Sheriff's Office. Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Royal knowingly and incorrectly misrepresented the letter requesting a transfer as a letter of resignation. Later, when applying for unemployment, Plaintiff alleges that Defendant Royal "manufactured evidence" to show that Plaintiff had not in fact asked to be transferred, but instead had sent a letter of resignation. Defendant Ware County allegedly appealed Plaintiff's initial award of unemployment benefits, but failed to appear at the in-person hearing for those benefits. The unemployment benefits were ultimately granted. Id. at ¶¶ 55-60.

At all times, Plaintiff alleges that the Defendants were acting under the color of state law. Plaintiff alleges that "as a result of Defendants' retaliatory actions... Plaintiff has suffered monetary loss, emotional pain and suffering, inconvenience, mental anguish, and loss of enjoyment of life." Id. at ¶¶ 65, 159.

PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

In his Complaint, Plaintiff alleges violations of his First Amendment freedom of speech rights (Counts I and V) and his Fourteenth Amendment right to due process (Counts III and VI) under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. He also brings state law claims for violation of his right to free speech (Count II) and his right to due process (Count IV) under the Georgia Constitution; violations of Ga. Code Ann. section 45-1-4 (Georgia whistleblower act) (Count VII); negligent retention (Count VIII); and intentional infliction of emotional distress (Count IX).

In his response to Defendants' motion to dismiss (Dkt. no. 17-1), Plaintiff withdrew his federal due process claims (Counts III and VI); his state law claims against all Defendants in their official capacities (excepting the whistleblower claim against Defendant Royal in his official capacity); his whistleblower claims against Defendants Ware County, Williams, and Royal in his individual capacity; and his Georgia Constitution claims (Counts II and IV). Additionally, Defendants do not challenge Plaintiff's First Amendment claims against Defendant Royal in his individual capacity or the Georgia whistleblower claim against Defendant Royal in his official capacity in the present motion.

Thus, the remaining claims for the Court to consider in the present motion are the First Amendment claims against Defendants Ware County, Williams in her individual and official capacity, and Royal in his official capacity (Counts I and V); negligent retention against Defendants Williams and Royal, in their individual capacities (Count VIII); and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Defendants Williams and Royal, in their individual capacities (Count IX)

LEGAL STANDARD

When ruling on a motion to dismiss brought pursuant to Rule 12(b) (6), a district court must accept as true the facts as set forth in the complaint and draw all reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Randall v. Scott, 610 F.3d 701, 705 (11th Cir. 2010). Although a complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, it must contain sufficient factual material "to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Bell Ati. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). At a minimum, a complaint should "contain either direct or inferential allegations respecting all the material elements necessary to sustain a recovery under some viable legal theory." Fin. Sec. Assurance, Inc. v. Stephens, Inc., 500 F.3d 1276, 1282-83 (11th Cir. 2007) (per curiam) (quoting Roe v. Aware Woman Ctr. for Choice, Inc., 253 F.3d 678, 683 (11th Cir. 2001)).

DISCUSSION

I. First Amendment Claims

In light of his withdrawals, Plaintiff's only remaining federal claim is a First Amendment retaliation claim against Defendants Royal in his official capacity, Williams in her ...


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