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Smith v. Deal

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

February 27, 2019

ALIECHIA SMITH, Plaintiff,
v.
MIKE DEAL, Individually, and in his official capacity as City Manager of the City of Jesup, Georgia; and DOUG LEWIS, Jesup Police Department Chief, individually, Defendants.

          ORDER

          HON LISA GODBEY WOOD JUDGE.

         Plaintiff filed this action seeking damages pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985. Dkt. No. 1. Before the Court is Defendants Mike Deal, in his individual and official capacities, and Doug Lewis's Motion for Summary Judgment, dkt. no. 13, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56. The Motion has been fully briefed and is ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion is GRANTED.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Aliechia Smith is an African-American female who worked as a police officer for the City of Jesup for fifteen years. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶ 1. On May 16, 2017, around 11:30 p.m. Smith was on duty taking a meal break at her house when she heard over her radio that an officer needed another officer to assist him. Dkt. No. 14-2 at 94. Soon after, Plaintiff received a phone call from Jocelyn, who is the daughter of Plaintiff's longtime girlfriend and who had lived with Plaintiff for a large part of her childhood. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶¶ 3, 4. Plaintiff views Jocelyn as her own daughter. Id. SI 4. Plaintiff did not answer Jocelyn's call but soon after called Jocelyn back, and Jocelyn answered that call. Dkt. No. 14-2 at 94-95. Jocelyn was "hysterical pretty much" and told Plaintiff that she had been stopped and that the officers wanted to search Jocelyn's car. Id. at 95. Plaintiff responded that the officers had no reason to search her car and told Jocelyn to tell them "no." Id.[1] Jocelyn then told the deputy that she was "on the phone with Sergeant Smith, and she told me not to allow y'all to search the vehicle." Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶ 13.

         Soon after the phone call ended, Plaintiff heard dispatch ask for a female officer to perform a search incident to Jocelyn's traffic stop. Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiff responded to dispatch that she was en route but that the suspect was like family and thus she could not perform the search. Id. Dispatch responded to Plaintiff with "10-22," meaning "[d]isregard, don't come." Dkt. No. 14-2 at 96. Plaintiff ignored the 10-22 command and drove to the traffic stop. Id. While Plaintiff was en route, another City of Jesup officer arrived at the scene of the traffic stop. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶ 19. The deputies instructed the other officer who had just arrived to leave. Id. ¶ 20. When that officer told Plaintiff that he was instructed to leave, Plaintiff, still en route, ordered him to stay because Jocelyn was involved in the stop. Id. ¶ 21. Plaintiff finally arrived at the scene with the specific intent of checking on Jocelyn. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff was told by a supervisor. that she needed to leave or stay on the other side of the street; she complied by staying on the other side of the street. Id. ¶¶ 23, 24.

         When Chief of Police Glenn Takaki learned of Plaintiff's behavior during the traffic stop, he placed her on administrative leave so an investigation could be performed. Id. ¶ 25. Takaki testified that in order to avoid possible conflicts of interest he concurred with the internal affairs investigator's suggestion that an outside agency conduct the investigation into Plaintiff's actions. Dkt. No. 14-2 at 67. After receiving the final report of the investigation from the outside agency, Takaki concluded that Plaintiff violated the police department's standard operating procedure governing professional image and that she may also have committed obstruction of the deputies involved in the traffic stop. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶ 27. Takaki subsequently met with Plaintiff three separate times to discuss the problems with her actions, to try and understand why Plaintiff took those actions, and to find an alternative means of addressing her actions besides termination. Id. ¶ 28. Plaintiff, however, insisted in all three meetings that her conduct was not improper. Id. ¶ 29. Takaki recommended that Plaintiff be terminated because Plaintiff "would not even [ac] knowledge that there was any hint of wrongdoing.'' Dkt. No. 14-2 at 37.

         The City Manager, Defendant Mike Deal, adopted Takaki's recommendation that Plaintiff be terminated. Dkt. No. 15-2 at 38. In Deal's words, his role in Plaintiff's firing was making "the final determination." Id. at 28. Nevertheless, the City of Jesup provides an avenue by which City employees can appeal any adverse employment decision to the City Grievance Committee, which has the authority to affirm or reverse any such decision. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶ 44. The City Manager is required to notify an employee who is terminated of her right to appeal. Id. ¶ 45. Plaintiff was properly notified and appealed Deal's decision, as she was entitled to do under the City of Jesup Employee Handbook. Id. ¶¶ 34, 46. An evidentiary hearing was held. Id. Section 12 of the City of Jesup Employee Handbook is titled "Grievance and Appeal Procedures." Dkt. No. 14-1 at 11. Sub-section B of Section 12 is entitled "Grievance Committee" and states in relevant part:

1. Establishment. There is hereby created a Grievance Committee for the City of Jesup, Georgia, to hear grievances and appeals from personnel regarding actions taken by the city department heads or other supervisory personnel of the city.
1.[2] Powers. The Grievance Committee shall hear all matters brought before it under procedures set forth below, and after a hearing may, by a majority vote of the Committee take such action concerning an affected employee as it deems appropriate, including but not limited to: reinstatement with or without full compensation lost, if any, reprimand, suspension, or dismissal from the service of the city.

Id. After the evidentiary hearing in which Takaki and Plaintiff, among others, testified at length, the majority of the Grievance Committee voted to uphold Plaintiff's termination. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶ 36.

         One more incident is relevant to Plaintiff's claims. Approximately two weeks before the traffic stop incident, Defendant Doug Lewis, who at the time was the Chief Deputy of the Wayne County Sheriff's Office, Plaintiff, and other law enforcement officers attended a crisis intervention training class ("C.I.T."). Diet. No. 15-3 at 42. Before the class started, Lewis and two other men were outside conversing when one of the men began discussing music that had recently been performed by the local high school band. Dkt. No. 20-2 ¶¶ 47, 50. The man then played one of the songs that the band had recently performed. Id. ¶ 51. Lewis stated to the group, "that sounds like rap music." Id. ¶ 52. Plaintiff was standing nearby-no more than twelve to fifteen feet away from the group. Dkt. No. 15-1 at 15. Plaintiff overheard the comment and interjected that "there's going to be some changes around here." Id. Plaintiff testified that Lewis then "grew red-faced [and] visibly angry," dkt. no. 20-2 ¶ 54, and she "felt," based on how they looked at her, that Lewis and another member of the group "got pretty mad," dkt. no. 15-1 at 15. No. one in the group verbally responded to Plaintiff's comment. Id. at 16. That was the end of the interaction, and Plaintiff did not have any further interaction with Lewis that day. Id. at 17.

         Plaintiff filed this action to recover damages and other compensation, which Plaintiff claims is owed to her under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and 42 U.S.C. § 1985.

         LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is required where "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). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." FindWhat Inv'r Grp. v. FindWhat.com, 658 F.3d 1282, 1307 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). A dispute is "genuine" if the "evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Id. In making this determination, the court is to view all of the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and draw all reasonable inferences in that party's favor. Johnson v. Booker T. Washington Broad. Serv., Inc., 234 F.3d 501, 507 (11th Cir. 2000).

         The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986). The movant must show the court that there is an absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Id. at 325. If the moving party discharges this burden, the burden shifts to the nonmovant to go beyond the pleadings and present affirmative evidence to show that a genuine issue of fact does exist. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 257.

         The nonmovant may satisfy this burden in two ways. First, the nonmovant "may show that the record in fact contains supporting evidence, sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion, which was overlooked or ignored' by the moving party, who has thus failed to meet the initial burden of showing an absence of evidence." Fitzpatrick v. City of Atlanta, 2 F.3d 1112, 1116 (11th Cir. 1993) (quoting Celotex Corp., 477 U.S. at 332 (Brennan, J., dissenting)). Second, the nonmovant "may come forward with additional evidence sufficient to withstand a directed verdict motion at trial based on the alleged evidentiary deficiency." Id. at 1117. Where the nonmovant attempts to carry this burden instead with nothing more "than a repetition of his conclusional allegations, summary judgment for the [movant is] not only proper but required." Morris v. Ross, 663 F.2d 1032, 1033-34 (11th Cir. 1981) (citing Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)).

         DISCUSSION

         I. Section 1983 First Amendment: Retaliation Claims

         Plaintiff's first claims, set forth in Count I of the Complaint, are against Defendants Mike Deal in his individual and official capacity as City Manager of the City of Jesup, Georgia, and Doug Lewis in his individual capacity. Plaintiff avers that she was suspended without pay and fired in retaliation for engaging in speech protected by the First Amendment. The allegedly protected speech was the statement she made to Jocelyn that the police needed her consent to search her car, and her comment at the C.I.T. class that "there's going to be some changes around here." For the reasons stated below, Plaintiff's claims set forth in Count I fail.

         A. Elements of a First Amendment Retaliation Claim

          "To state a claim under ...[§] 1983, a plaintiff must allege that (1) the defendant deprived him [or her] of a right secured under the United States Constitution or federal law and (2) such deprivation occurred under color of state law." Richardson v. Johnson, 598 F.3d 734, 737 (11th Cir. 2010) (citing U.S. Steel, LLC v. Tieco, Inc., 261 F.3d 1275, 1288 (11th Cir. 2001);Arrinqton v. Cobb Cnty., 139 F.3d 865, 872 (11th Cir. 1998)). In employment retaliation claims, specifically, "[f]or a public employee to establish that an employer conditioned [his or] her job in a way that burdened a constitutional right impermissibly, the employee must first demonstrate that the asserted right is protected by the Constitution and that he or she ...


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