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Kennedy v. Jefferson County

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Western Division

July 13, 2015

JERRY L. KENNEDY, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI by and through, its Board OF Supervisors, JEFFERSON COUNTY HOSPITAL, BOARD OF TRUSTEES OF JEFFERSON COUNTY HOSPITAL, in its official capacity, and DUDLEY GUICE, individually and in his official capacity, REGINA REED, individually and in her official capacity, and JOHN DOES 1-10 Defendants.

ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART SUMMARY JUDGMENT, DENYING PARTIAL SUMMARY JUDGMENT, AND GRANTING LEAVE TO AMEND

DAVID BRAMLETTE, District Judge.

This cause is before the Court on Plaintiff's, Jerry L. Kennedy, Motion for Partial Summary Judgment [docket entry no. 207] and Motion for Leave to File Third Amended Complaint [docket entry no. 258]; Defendants', Board of Trustees of Jefferson County Hospital, Jefferson County Hospital, and Regina Reed, Motion for Summary Judgment [docket entry no. 248]; Defendant's, Jefferson County, Mississippi, Motion for Summary Judgment [docket entry no. 254]; and Defendant's, Dudley Guice, Motion for Summary Judgment [docket entry no. 256]. Having reviewed the motions and responses, applicable statutory and case law, and being otherwise fully informed in the premises, the Court finds as follows:

I. Factual and Procedural Background

Plaintiff Jerry L. Kennedy began working for Defendant Jefferson County Hospital ("the Hospital") in late 1999 as an administrator. He worked in that position, apparently without relevant incident, for several years. Kennedy also worked as a consultant for the Claiborne County Hospital at the same time. But in 2013, Kennedy terminated a lucrative contract between the Hospital and a relative of Defendant Dudley Guice, which according to Kennedy, set in motion the events that led to his termination. Guice is a member of the Board of Supervisors for Defendant Jefferson County, Mississippi ("the County").

Kennedy contends that on May 9, 2012, Defendant Board of Trustees of Jefferson County Hospital ("the Hospital Board"), renewed his contract for an additional five years. The Hospital Board argues that this extension was not valid. Kennedy is suing only on his 2012 contract, but he seeks to amend his complaint to include suit based on his 2009 contract with the Hospital Board. The Hospital Board opposes this amendment.

On April 10, 2013, the Hospital Board terminated Kennedy from his position as hospital administrator without notice. Kennedy and the Hospital Board dispute whether there was cause for his termination. Regarding termination, Kennedy's contract provided:

The Employer may not terminate this Agreement without cause. Prior to termination, the Employer must give the Employee at least one hundred twenty (120) days written notice of the Employer's intention to terminate this Agreement if there is an amicable termination. The notice of termination of the contract shall be by written notice hand delivered or sent by certified mail, return receipt requested. The Employer will provide the Employee with the alleged cause' for termination. The Employer will allow the Employee one hundred twenty (120) days to correct the cause if proven to be amicable cause.

Am. Compl. Ex. 1 ¶ 7, ECF No. 52-1.[1] After his termination, Kennedy filed for unemployment benefits, but a Mississippi Department of Employment Security ("MDES") Administrative Law Judge ("ALJ") found Kennedy had been terminated because of misconduct and denied benefits.

This case was removed to federal court on December 2, 2013 by the Hospital, the Hospital Board, and Defendant Regina Reed, a member of the Hospital Board. In the time this case has been pending before this Court, the parties have engaged in an intense and fractious motion contest which has prolonged resolution of this case and necessitated the filing of hundreds of documents with the Court. The Court has already denied a motion to dismiss from Kennedy arguing that this Court lacked jurisdiction after he voluntarily dismissed his federal law claims. See Order 8, ECF No. 203 (finding Kennedy engaged in forum manipulation). The Court has also dealt with motions from the defendants related to contumacious conduct more than once. There have also been myriad motions for extensions of time to file responses from all parties.

In his first complaint before this Court, Kennedy made claims for (1) deprivation of civil rights, (2) conspiracy to interfere with civil rights, (3) breach of contract, (4) specific performance, (5) slander per se, (6) civil conspiracy, (7) tortious interference with a contract, and (8) age and gender discrimination. On April 18, 2014, Kennedy moved to amend his complaint to eliminate his federal law claims, which the Court allowed. Kennedy's remaining claims are for (1) breach of contract, (2) specific performance, (3) slander per se, (4) civil conspiracy and (5) tortious interference with a contract.

On January 12, 2015, Kennedy moved for partial summary judgment. On March 16, 2015, the defendants moved for summary judgment. Several hours later that same day, Kennedy moved to amend his complaint. This matter is set for a pretrial conference in mid July.

II. Analysis

A. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate "if 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 its resolution in favor of one party might affect the outcome of the lawsuit under governing law. An issue is genuine' if the evidence is sufficient for a reasonable jury to return a verdict for the non-moving party." Ginsberg 1985 Real Estate P'ship v. Cadle Co., 39 F.3d 528, 531 (5th Cir. 1994) (citations omitted). The moving party bears the initial responsibility of apprising the district court of the basis for its motion and the parts of the record which indicate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact. Celotex Corp. V. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323 (1986).

"Once the moving party presents the district court with a properly supported summary judgment motion, the burden shifts to the non-moving party to show that summary judgment is inappropriate." Morris v. Covan World Wide Moving, Inc., 144 F.3d 377, 380 (5th Cir. 1998). "The evidence of the non-movant is to be believed, and all justifiable inferences are to be drawn in his favor." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986). But the nonmovant must meet his burden with more than metaphysical doubt, conclusory allegations, unsubstantiated assertions, or a mere scintilla of evidence. Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994). A party asserting a fact is "genuinely disputed must support the assertion by: (A) citing to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations... admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials...." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A).

Summary judgment must be rendered when the nonmovant "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, 477 U.S. at 322.

Because the claims against the County, Guice, and Reed are unrelated to the disputed employment contract, the Court will dispose of them before proceeding to those motions that orbit the contractual issues.

B. Jefferson County

In its motion, the County argues that Kennedy does not specify which claims he made against the County. The County argues specifically: (1) it was not a party to the employment contract, (2) it is immune from certain torts under the Mississippi Tort Claims Act ("MTCA"), and (3) the remaining tort claims fail as a matter of law. The Court agrees.

The elements of a breach of contract claim are: (1) the existence of a valid contract and (2) breach by the defendant. Bus. Commc'ns, Inc. v. Banks, 90 So.3d 1221, 1224-25 (Miss. 2012). The Court finds that there was no contract between Kennedy and the County. On its face, the contract was between Kennedy and the Hospital Board. And the Hospital Board only has the statutory authority to contract on its own behalf, not to bind the County. See Greene Cnty. v. Corporate Mgmt., Inc., 10 So.3d 424, 431 (Miss. 2009) (citing Miss. Code Ann. § 41-13-35(5)(g) (2004)). Further, specific performance is an equitable contract remedy, not a separate cause of action. See Bus. Commc'ns, Inc., 90 So.3d at 1225; see also Myriad Dev., Inc. v. Alltech, Inc., 817 F.Supp.2d 946, 955 n.23 (W.D. Tex. 2011). Because the County was not a party to the contract at issue, it is entitled to summary judgment on these claims.

Next, The MTCA waives governmental immunity for "the torts of [state] employees while acting within the course and scope of their employment, " but it excludes from the "course and scope of employment" "any conduct of [state] employee[s] if the employee's conduct constituted fraud, malice, libel, slander, defamation or any criminal offense other than traffic violations." Miss. Code Ann. § 11-46-5(1), 11-46-5(2) (1992). Kennedy's claim for slander per se clearly meets the waiver exception. Further, "a civil conspiracy claim cannot stand alone, but must be based on an underlying tort." Aiken v. Rimkus Consulting Grp., Inc., 333 F.Appx. 806, 812 (5th Cir. 2008) (per curiam) (citing Wells v. Shelter Gen. Ins. Co., 217 F.Supp.2d 744, 755 (S.D.Miss. 2002) (applying Mississippi law; collecting cases)). Kennedy has based his civil conspiracy claim on alleged defamatory and slanderous statements by members of the County Board of Supervisors. Because the County cannot be liable for the underlying tort, it cannot be liable for the alleged civil conspiracy. Therefore, the County is entitled to summary judgment on these claims.

Lastly, the Court considers the claim for tortious interference with a contract. This claim falls within the scope of the MTCA immunity waiver in this case.[2] The elements of tortious interference with a contract claim are:

1) the acts were intentional and willful; 2) that they were calculated to cause damages to the plaintiffs in their lawful business; 3) that they were done with the unlawful purpose of causing damage and loss, without right or justifiable cause on the part of the defendant; and 4) that actual loss occurred.

Levens v. Campbell, 733 So.2d 753, 760-61 (Miss. 1999). The County argues that "[t]here are no entries in the minutes of the Board of Supervisors... that could amount to tortious interference...." Mem. Supp. 10, ECF No. 255. Kennedy argues that the actions of Guice were made in the scope of his employment as a member of the Board of Supervisors. However, "any act by a Board of Supervisors must be evidenced by an entry in its minutes in order to be valid." Greene Cnty., 10 So.3d at 431. And "public interest requires adherence [to the minutes], notwithstanding the fact that in some instances the rule may work an apparent injustice." Butler v. Bd. of Supervisors for Hinds Cnty., 659 So.2d 578, 579 (Miss. 1995) (quoting Colle Towing Co., Inc. v. Harrison Cnty., 57 So.2d 171, 172 (Miss. 1952)). Because Kennedy can point to no valid actions taken by the County and evidenced on its minutes that would amount to tortious interference with a contract, the County is entitled to summary judgment on this claim.

C. Dudley Guice and Regina Reed

Guice and Reed move for summary judgment on the claims for slander per se, civil conspiracy, and tortious interference with a contract made against them in their individual and official capacities. The Court finds that neither Guice nor Reed are parties to the contract, thus to the extent that the contract related claims are made against them, the Court will grant the motion for summary judgment.

1. Slander per se

Guice and Reed argue that Kennedy has not shown the elements of a claim for slander per se, and even if Kennedy has shown them, the claim must still fail because any statements made were truthful. Kennedy argues that there are genuine issues of material fact sufficient to deny summary judgment on this claim.

To prove a claim for slander in Mississippi a plaintiff must show:

(1) a false and defamatory statement concerning the plaintiff; (2) unprivileged publication to a third party; (3) fault amounting to at least negligence on the part of the publisher; and (4) either actionability of the statement irrespective of special ...

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