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Jones v. City of Hattiesburg

Court of Appeals of Mississippi

January 10, 2017

VANESSA J. JONES APPELLANT
v.
CITY OF HATTIESBURG, MISSISSIPPI APPELLEE

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 05/19/2015

         FORREST COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT HON. MICHAEL H. WARD, Judge

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANT: KIM T. CHAZE

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEE: L. CLARK HICKS JR. R. LANE DOSSETT

         EN BANC.

          GREENLEE, J.

         ¶1. This is an appeal from Forrest County Circuit Court where former municipal judge Vanessa Jones filed suit against the City of Hattiesburg (City) and other unknown defendants asserting that she was wrongfully terminated and that unknown city officials, in their official capacities, committed slander, menace, outrage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress against her. The circuit court granted summary judgment to the City. Because Jones was an at-will employee, and because the Mississippi Tort Claims Act (MTCA) provides immunity to the City for the alleged offenses, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEEDINGS BELOW

         ¶2. In June 2003, Jones was appointed along with two others as a municipal-court judge for Hattiesburg on a part-time basis. After receiving complaints and reports of misconduct within the municipal-court system, the City conducted an internal investigation. After the investigation was concluded, Mayor Johnny Dupree (Mayor) chose to reorganize the municipal-court system to have one full-time municipal judge, rather than the three-part-time-judge system. Under this reorganization, the three part-time municipal-judge positions, including Jones's, were eliminated. Subsequently, Jones filed a complaint on September 6, 2013, asserting slander, defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, menace, outrage, and wrongful termination. The City answered, asserting that Jones was an at-will employee, thus barring her wrongful-termination claim, and that it was immune from her other claims under the MTCA, along with other defenses.

         ¶3. On January 21, 2014, the City moved for summary judgment. The City asserted that Jones's claim for wrongful termination was barred due to her at-will-employment status. Further, the City moved for dismissal of Jones's remaining claims asserting that Jones, concerning her claims of slander, menace, outrage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress, failed to identify the person who purportedly communicated such statements, when they were communicated, or the context of the statements, or to offer any evidence of malice. Jones responded by pointing to the City's employment handbook and asserting that it established a contractual right of employment for her with the City, and that the City failed to follow its grievance procedure provided in the handbook. On June 4, 2014, the circuit court held a hearing on the City's motion for summary judgment. On May 19, 2015, the circuit court granted summary judgment for the City based on its motion. On June 12, 2015, Jones appealed the circuit court's grant of summary judgment to this Court.

         DISCUSSION

         ¶4. A grant or denial of summary judgment is reviewed de novo, considering all the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Smith ex rel. Smith v. Leake Cty. Sch. Dist., 195 So.3d 771, 774 (¶8) (Miss. 2016). Though she asserts five separate issues, Jones's appeal boils down to two: (1) whether she was wrongfully terminated, and (2) whether she has a viable claim against the City for defamation, intentional infliction of emotional distress, menace and outrage, or slander. We affirm the judgment of dismissal of the circuit court.

         I. Employment

         ¶5. Jones argues that she is not an at-will employee or, in the alternative, that the City's employee handbook controls the City over her employment, thus entitling her to the procedures and relief provided within it. However, Mississippi Code Annotated sections 21-3-3 and 21-3-5 state that an appointed municipal judge holds her office at the pleasure of the governing authorities and may be discharged by such authorities at any time, either with or without cause. Miss. Code Ann. §§ 21-3-3, 21-3-5 (Rev. 2015). An employee who may be terminated by the employer, with or without cause, is an at-will employee. Galle v. Isle of Capri Casinos Inc., 180 So.3d 619, 622 (ΒΆ13) (Miss. 2015). ...


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