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Pickett v. Panola County

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

January 30, 2015

BRADLEY KEITH PICKETT, Plaintiff,
v.
PANOLA COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI, AND CHRIS FRANKLIN, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DEBRA M. BROWN, District Judge.

Plaintiff Bradley Keith Pickett filed this lawsuit against his former employer, Panola County, Mississippi, for discrimination and/or retaliation under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1984 ("USERRA") and against his former supervisor, Chris Franklin, for malicious interference with employment under Mississippi law. Plaintiff asserts that Panola County terminated him because of his military status and that Franklin willfully and maliciously interfered with his employment, thereby causing him to suffer actual and punitive damages. Defendants have moved for summary judgment on grounds that Plaintiff's USERRA claims fail because he was not terminated but resigned from his position, and that his malicious interference claim fails because he did not provide pre-suit notice as required under Mississippi law. For the reasons below, the Court finds that Defendants' motion for summary judgment should be granted in part and denied in part.

I

Plaintiff joined the Mississippi Army National Guard in 1990 and served two and a half years before receiving an honorable discharge. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 3. In 2006, Plaintiff began working as a jailer with the Panola County Sheriff's Department. Id. at 8-9. In October 2010, while still working as a jailer, Plaintiff reenlisted with the Mississippi Army National Guard. Id. at 3, 9. He was later given military orders that required him to leave his job for approximately nineteen weeks. Plaintiff did not have any complaints or issues with Panola County regarding his military leave while he was a jailer. Id. at 13. On some occasions, Plaintiff's military orders were delayed and, as a result, were given to his supervisor late. Id. at 15. Plaintiff claims, however, that his then-supervisor never required him to use sick days or vacation days to go on military leave. Id. at 13.

Plaintiff eventually applied for law enforcement positions and, in January 2012, was hired as a deputy with the Panola County Sheriff's Department. Id. at 11; Doc. [54-7]. He was sent to the police training academy for his new position and, like other new employees, placed on a one-year probationary period. See Defs.' Mem. Br. [51] at Ex. B. At the time Plaintiff was hired, Dennis Darby was Sheriff of Panola County, and Chris Franklin was Chief Deputy. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 11. Supervisory officials were ranked in descending order as follows: sheriff, chief deputy, major, captain, and then lieutenant. Perkins Dep. [54-10] at 3-4; Lambert Dep. [54-13] at 2; Taylor Dep. [54-22] at 2.

When Plaintiff returned from police training in March 2012, he began to notice that his military absences might be causing problems for his supervisors. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 14. According to Plaintiff, he began to feel pressure from his supervisors whenever his military orders were delayed. Id. Plaintiff maintains that he submitted drill and annual training schedules approximately one year in advance. Id. at 16; Perkins Dep. [54-10] at 5. Sometimes, however, his drill schedule changed, he had to report to duty for other reasons, or he received military orders without much advance notice. See Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 16-17, 27. For example, Plaintiff received orders dated April 20, 2012, directing him to report to active duty training from April 23, 2012, to April 26, 2012. Doc. [54-29]. By orders dated May 31, 2012, Plaintiff was required to report to annual training from June 10, 2012, to June 24, 2012. Doc. [54-30]. By orders dated July 17, 2012, he was required to report to active duty training from July 16, 2012, to July 28, 2012.[1] Doc. [54-12].

After returning to work on or about July 31, 2012, Plaintiff had a meeting with Chief Deputy Franklin and two other high-ranking officers. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 30. According to Plaintiff, the officers told him during the meeting that he would have to choose between his job and military obligations. Id. Plaintiff claims that he gave the officers a guide/handbook regarding USERRA, but the tone of the meeting did not change. Id. Still, none of the supervisory officers told Plaintiff he would be terminated. Id. at 22, 40.

By letter dated December 17, 2012, Plaintiff applied for the position of K-9 Officer. See Doc. [54-15]. He was not selected for the position. Darby Dep. [54-5] at 11-13.

On January 3, 2013, Plaintiff and Franklin had a dispute at the Sheriff's Department regarding a time sheet Plaintiff had completed. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 33; Franklin Dep. [54-6] at 6-7. When Franklin questioned Plaintiff about the time sheet, the two got into an argument that escalated into a physical altercation wherein they pushed and/or grabbed one another before falling onto the floor. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 34-35; Franklin Dep. [54-6] at 6-7; McDonald Dep. [54-19] at 3. Shortly after their altercation, Plaintiff and Franklin sat down and talked about their issues. Pl.'s Dep. [54-1] at 35-36; Franklin Dep. [54-6] at 7-8. A lieutenant at the Department was present during their conversation. Taylor Dep. [54-22] at 3. On January 8, 2013, Sheriff Darby gave Plaintiff the option of resigning or being terminated. Darby Dep. [54-5] at 3. That day, Plaintiff submitted a letter notifying Panola County of his resignation from employment with the Sheriff's Department. Doc. [54-26].

On April 11, 2013, Plaintiff filed a complaint in this Court against Panola County for forcing him to resign in violation of USERRA. See Compl. [1]. On September 24, 2013, Plaintiff filed an amended complaint adding Franklin to the lawsuit and asserting a claim against him for malicious interference with employment.[2] See Am. Compl. [20]. On January 13, 2014, Plaintiff filed a supplemental complaint and attached the notice of claim that he sent to Defendants regarding his malicious interference claim. See Supp. Compl. [30]. Defendants filed the instant motion for summary judgment on July 31, 2014. Plaintiff responded in opposition to the motion. Defendants did not file a reply brief, and the time for doing so has expired. See L.U. Civ. R. 7(6)(4); Fed.R.Civ.P. 6(d). The motion is now ripe for resolution.

II

Under Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure, summary judgment should be entered when the evidence in a case shows there is no genuine issue of any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). Summary judgment is appropriate, "after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). In evaluating whether summary judgment is appropriate in a case, a district court must review all well pleaded facts in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Pratt v. City of Houston, 247 F.3d 601, 606 (5th Cir. 2001).

The party seeking summary judgment must inform "the district court of the basis for its motion, and identify[] those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a material fact." Catrett, 477 U.S. at 323. The party opposing summary judgment must "go beyond the pleadings" and "designate specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Id. at 324 (citations omitted). The nonmoving party cannot rely on metaphysical doubt, conclusive allegations, or unsubstantiated assertions but instead must show that there is an actual controversy warranting trial. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (internal citations and quotation marks omitted). In the absence of proof, the district court should not assume that the nonmoving party could have proved the necessary facts. Paz v. Brush Engineered Materials, Inc., 555 F.3d 383, 391 (5th Cir. ...


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