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Johnson v. City of Shelby

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

June 30, 2015

TRACEY L. JOHNSON and DAVID JAMES, JR. PLAINTIFFS
v.
CITY OF SHELBY, MISSISSIPPI and HAROLD BILLINGS, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM OPINION

MICHAEL P. MILLS, District Judge.

Before the court is Defendant City of Shelby's (the "City") motion for summary judgment. Plaintiffs Tracey L. Johnson and David James, Jr. (collectively "Plaintiffs") have responded, and Defendant replied. Having considered the filings and relevant law, the court is prepared to rule.

This case began in 2010 when Plaintiffs Tracey Johnson and David James, Jr. filed a constitutional claim for deprivation of property without due process against the City of Shelby, Mississippi and filed a malicious interference with employment claim against Harold Billings in his individual capacity. This court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment because the constitutional claim was not brought through 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the malicious interference claim did not comply with the pre-suit requirements of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act. Plaintiffs appealed the judgment and, in November 2013, the 5th Circuit affirmed this court's opinion in full. Plaintiffs subsequently appealed to the United States Supreme Court, which reversed the 5th Circuit's affirmance on the plaintiffs' constitutional claim. In particular, the Supreme Court reversed 5th Circuit precedent that, to bring a constitutional claim against a governmental entity, a plaintiff must specifically set forth in the complaint that the claim was being pursued through 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Supreme Court did not address alternative grounds for dismissal or the dismissal of claims against Billings for failure to comply with the MTCA. Instead, the Supreme Court remanded the case for further proceedings consistent with its opinion. The only remaining claim is Plaintiffs' constitutional claim against the City of Shelby, Mississippi for deprivation of property without due process.

FACTS

Tracey L. Johnson and David James, Jr. were hired as police officers for the City of Shelby, Mississippi in 2007. In September of 2009, the City's Board of Aldermen, which has sole authority over the City's employment decisions, terminated Johnson and James, for violation of City residents' rights and police procedure. Among the complaints against Plaintiffs were a warrantless arrest of a woman accused of stealing a beer from a convenience store and allegations of profiling and harassment by the residents of an apartment complex, who filed a petition to the Board of Aldermen calling for the termination of Plaintiffs. After the Board voted to terminate Plaintiffs, James requested and obtained a grievance hearing from the City. The Board upheld their terminations.

The City of Shelby has a city employee handbook, covering police officers, adopted in 1997 and revised in 2003, that states: "There is no contract of employment between the City and any one or all of its employees. Employment security cannot be guaranteed for or by any employee." Plaintiffs, in fact, did not have an employee contract with the City. In 2006, the City also adopted the City of Shelby Police Department Standard Operating Procedures Manual, which provided that officers were responsible for complying with the city employee handbook. In 2008, however, the Board of Alderman adopted a new Standard Operating Procedures Manual which included policies and procedures the police department should follow in the case of disciplinary action, including termination. Plaintiffs claim that language in the 2008 manual provides that police officers may only be terminated for cause. Plaintiffs do not point to specific language in the manual, but instead seem to rely on the overall scheme and structure of the manual, which lays out the reasons and procedures for disciplinary action. In September of 2009, the Board of Aldermen rescinded the 2008 manual and readopted the previous 2006 manual. This readoption occurred during the same meeting, but before, the termination of Plaintiffs. While the Board may have shown bad form in their pursuit of legal advantage, such action is not fatal to defendant's motion.

Plaintiffs argue they had a property interest in continued employment with the City and that they were deprived of that property interest without due process. Plaintiffs claim that, due to the policies and procedure in effect during their employment (but rescinded before their termination), they could only be discharged for a legitimate cause and upon recommendation of the police chief. Therefore, Plaintiffs maintain, they had a reasonable expectation of continued employment.

The City responds that Plaintiffs did not have employment contracts with the City and therefore their employment was at-will employment. The City also argues that the policies the plaintiffs relied on were rescinded prior to Plaintiffs' termination, and that, even if the relied upon policies were in place at the time of Plaintiffs' termination, Plaintiffs would still not have a property interest because the City of Shelby Employee Handbook states:

There is no contract of employment between the City and any one or all of its employees. Employment security cannot be guaranteed for or by any employee.
At all times during employment with the City of Shelby, employees shall retain the right to leave employment if they choose. Likewise, we retain the right to separate any employee from employment at any time with or without notice.

STANDARD OF REVIEW

Summary judgment is appropriate when there is "no genuine issue of material fact and the movant is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The facts and evidence are taken in a light most favorable to the non-moving party. LeMaire v. La. Dep't of Transp. & Dev., 480 F.3d 383, 386 (5th Cir.2007).

A dispute regarding a material fact is "genuine" if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). Summary judgment is appropriate if "critical evidence is so weak or tenuous on an essential fact that it could not support a judgment in favor of the non-movant." Armstrong v. City of Dallas, 997 F.2d 62, 67 (5th Cir. 1993). A party opposing a properly supported motion for summary judgment "may not rest upon the mere allegations or denials of his pleading, but... must set forth specific facts showing ...


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