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Watt v. City of Columbus

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

January 24, 2017




         Virginia Watt filed her Complaint [1] in this Court on June 14, 2016 against her former employer, the City of Columbus, Mississippi. The City filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [7] requesting judgment in its favor on all of the Plaintiff's claims.[1] The Plaintiff responded [10] and the City replied [14], making this motion ripe for review.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Virginia Watt was a Deputy Municipal Clerk for the City of Columbus, Mississippi for approximately four years. After Watt was indicted by a grand jury and arrested at her workplace for selling narcotics, the City placed her on paid leave for approximately five months.[2] The City terminated the Plaintiff's employment on June 18, 2013. The charges against the Plaintiff were ultimately dismissed on September 15, 2015.

         In her complaint, the Plaintiff alleges that the City failed to provide her with the requisite Civil Service System procedures and protections, terminated her because she is a black female, and violated her due process rights. The City responds that the Plaintiff was not a civil service employee, that her race discrimination claim is time barred, and that she failed to state a claim for a due process violation.

         Standard of Review

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56 governs summary judgment. Summary judgment is warranted when the evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact, and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, 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, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986).

         The moving party “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324, 106 S.Ct. 2548 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the non-movant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the Court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

         Civil Service System

         The Plaintiff alleges that the City had a Civil Service System in effect at the time she was employed, that as a civil service employee she could not be terminated without good cause, and that she was entitled to notice and a hearing before being fired. The City responds that although it did have a Civil Service System, the Plaintiff was not a member of the system, and thus not covered by civil service protections. The City also argues that the Plaintiff was an at-will employee and that she signed a notice explicitly recognizing her at-will employment status upon hiring. Said notice bearing the undisputed Plaintiff's signature is a part of the record.

         The City concedes that it is required by law to adopt a Civil Service System. See Miss. Code. Ann. § 21-31-1. However, the City argues that as a municipal court employee the Plaintiff was not included in the Civil Service System, and was instead an at-will employee. See Miss. Code. Ann. § 21-31-13. The Plaintiff did not respond to these arguments. The Court finds that based on the evidence in the record, the Plaintiff was not covered by the City's Civil Service System, and that she was instead, an at-will employee. Because there is no evidence in the record to support the Plaintiff's claim that she was covered or entitled to civil service protections, summary judgment is appropriate in the City's favor on this claim.

         Race Discrimination

         Next, the Plaintiff claims that she was terminated because she is a black female in violation of her right to be free from race discrimination as guaranteed by 42 U.S.C. § 1981. The Plaintiff further alleges that her claim against the City is authorized under 42 U.S.C. §1983. The City responds by arguing that the Plaintiff's Title VII race discrimination claim is time barred because she did not file the requisite charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the time limit for filing such a charge has long since expired. The Court notes that the Plaintiff does not mention Title VII in any of her pleadings.

         There are substantive differences between claims brought under Title VII and § 1981. See Jones v. Robinson Prop. Grp., L.P., 427 F.3d 987, 992 (5th Cir. 2005) (stating that although “the analysis of employment discrimination claims under Title VII and § 1981 is “identical, ” [. . .] “the only substantive differences” between the two statutes are “their respective statutes of limitations and the requirement under Title VII that the employee exhaust administrative remedies.”) see also Chen v. Ochsner Clinic Found., 630 F. App'x 218, 227 (5th Cir. 2015); Fonteneaux v. Shell Oil Co., 289 F. App'x 695, 698 (5th Cir. 2008). Because the Plaintiff has clearly brought her claim under §1981 and §1983, and not under Title VII, the statute of limitations and exhaustion arguments raised by the City are not applicable. The parties have not briefed or argued the applicable statute of limitations, nor have they briefed the substance of the Plaintiff's discrimination claim. Because as the moving party, the City “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of ...

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