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Pree v. The Washington County Board of Supervisors

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

February 3, 2017




         Brenda Pree originally filed this case in the Circuit Court of Washington County, Mississippi. The Defendants removed the case to this Court on June 15, 2016. In her Amended Complaint [4-7], Pree alleges various claims against the Washington County Board of Supervisors, as well as claims against County Supervisors Jesse Amos, Paul Watson Jr., and Mike Gordon in their official and individual capacities. The Defendants filed two motions requesting dismissal of particular claims [10, 12], and one asserting qualified immunity on behalf of the individual defendants [8]. With the relevant responses, replies, and deadlines complete, these motions are ripe for review.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         After the resignation of the Washington County Planning Director/Grant Writer, and the multiple hospitalizations of the County Administrator in 2014, the County Board of Supervisors recognized the need for additional personnel both to supplement or substitute for the current County Administrator, and to do grant writing and administration. On November 4, 2014, the Board of Supervisors authorized a call for applications for the position of Assistant County Administrator/Human Resources Director. Subsequently, the Board approved Vicki Uppal to serve temporarily as a grant writer and administrator for the County for a period of three months. The Chancery Clerk issued an official Notice of Intent and subsequently published an advertisement for the Assistant County Administrator position. On December 1, 2014, the Board approved a salary for the position, and reviewed and added duties, including grant writing, to the proposed job description. At that time, the Board also changed the job title to Assistant County Administrator/Grants Coordinator.

         By the deadline of December 12, 2014 the County received some thirty-six applications. In February of 2015, four out of five of the Supervisors submitted their top choices from the pool of applicants.[1] From these choices the Board selected four top candidates for interviews. Both Uppal and the Plaintiff were on the list of top candidates. After completing interviews, the Board voted unanimously to appoint Uppal as Assistant County Administrator/Grants Coordinator. The County Administrator continued to have health issues and eventually resigned effective June 30, 2015. On July 20, 2015 the Board appointed Uppal as County Administrator. The Board did not advertise or consider other applicants for County Administrator.

         According to the Plaintiff, several members of the Board conspired to manipulate the application and appointment process for the County Administrator position. According to the Plaintiff, the Board wanted a white person in the position instead of the Plaintiff, who is African-American, even though the Plaintiff was more qualified. The Plaintiff alleges that the Board appointed Uppal to the temporary grant writing position even though she had no experience. Then, the Plaintiff alleges, the Board members added grant writing qualifications to the Assistant County Administrator job description to make Uppal appear more qualified.

         The Defendants filed a motion to dismiss the Plaintiff's Title VII claims against the individual Defendants [10]. In her Response [18], the Plaintiff states that she did not intend to assert Title VII claims against the individual defendants. Instead, the Plaintiff indicates that she is pursuing a Title VII claim against the County only. For this reason, the Defendants' motion is well taken and the Plaintiff's Title VII claims against the individual Defendants are dismissed with prejudice.

         The Defendants also filed a Motion to dismiss [12] the Plaintiff's state law claim for defamation. The Defendants argue, inter alia, that the claim is barred under the prerequisites of the Mississippi Tort Claims Act, and that the Plaintiff failed to state a claim for defamation under Mississippi Law. In her response [19], the Plaintiff concedes that dismissal of this claim is appropriate. For this reason, the Defendants' motion to dismiss the Plaintiff's state law claim of defamation is granted, and her defamation claim is dismissed with prejudice.

         Thus, the Plaintiff has three remaining claims against the County, one Title VII claim, one Equal Protection claim, and one due process claim based on the Mississippi Constitution.[2] As to the individual Defendants, the Plaintiff has an equal protection claim against each of them.[3]

         The Defendants filed a Motion for Summary Judgment [8] invoking the protection of qualified immunity and requesting dismissal of all the Plaintiff's remaining claims against the individual Defendants. The individual Defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity because they did not violate the Plaintiff's constitutional rights, and their conduct was objectively reasonable. The Plaintiff responds by arguing that the individual Defendants violated her constitutional right to equal protection when they “preselected” Uppal for the position because of her race, and that their actions exhibited “deliberate indifference” to the Plaintiff's clearly established rights.

         Qualified immunity

         Qualified immunity protects government officials from liability for civil damages to the extent that their conduct is objectively reasonable in light of clearly established law. Crostley v. Lamar Cty., Texas, 717 F.3d 410, 422-24 (5th Cir. 2013) (citing Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982); Kinney v. Weaver, 367 F.3d 337, 346 (5th Cir. 2004)). “[T]he usual summary judgment burden of proof is altered in the case of a qualified immunity defense.” Wolfe v. Meziere, 566 F. App'x 353, 354 (5th Cir. 2014) (citing Michalik v. Hermann, 422 F.3d 252, 262 (5th Cir. 2005); Bazan ex rel. Bazan v. Hidalgo Cnty., 246 F.3d 481, 489 (5th Cir. 2001)). “An [official] need only plead his good faith, which then shifts the burden to the plaintiff, who must rebut the defense by establishing that the [official's] allegedly wrongful conduct violated clearly established law.” Id. The Plaintiff “cannot rest on conclusory allegations and assertions but must demonstrate genuine issues of material fact regarding the reasonableness of the officer's conduct.” Id.

         “A plaintiff can overcome a qualified immunity defense by showing (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was ‘clearly established' at the time of the challenged conduct.” Allen v. Cisneros, 815 F.3d 239, 244 (5th Cir. 2016) (quoting Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, 563 U.S. 731, 735, 131 S.Ct. 2074, 179 L.Ed.2d 1149 (2011); Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818, 102 S.Ct. 2727, 73 L.Ed.2d 396 (1982)). The second prong is satisfied “only if ‘the state of the law at the time of the incident provided fair warning to the defendants that their alleged [conduct] was unconstitutional.'” Kimbriel v. City of Greenville, Miss., No. 15-60489, 2016 WL 1719108, at *2 (5th Cir. Apr. 28, 2016) (quoting Cass v. City of Abilene, 814 F.3d 721, 728 (5th Cir. 2016); Tolan v. Cotton, ___ U.S. ___, 134 S.Ct. 1861, 1866 (2014)). The Court may conduct this two-pronged inquiry in any order. Crostley, 717 F.3d at 422-24 (citing Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236, 129 S.Ct. 808, 172 L.Ed.2d 565 (2009)).

         Race Discrimination ...

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