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Washington v. City of Nettleton

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

March 6, 2017

FREDERICK WASHINGTON PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF NETTLETON, JIMMY TAYLOR and A.D. HEARD, in their individual capacities DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This matter comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment [46]. Plaintiff filed his response [53], alleging that Defendant Nettleton discriminated and retaliated against Plaintiff in violation of Title VII. Plaintiff further alleges that Defendants Heard and Taylor, in their individual capacity, have violated Plaintiffs First Amendment rights. Finally, Plaintiff advances a claim of denial of equal protection based on his race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment against Defendant Taylor, also in his individual capacity. Defendants have jointly replied, asserting defenses including qualified immunity [58].

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Upon recommendation by Police Chief A.D. Heard, Frederick Washington was hired as a full time police officer for the City of Nettleton in July 2013. Washington was promoted as the City's Assistant Chief that September, again upon recommendation by Chief Heard. Defendants allege that this appointment was for a probationary period.

         In November of that year, Washington complained to Chief Heard regarding an officer named Phillip Smith. Washington reported that Officer Smith, who is white, was missing his shifts without notice or excuse. Washington raised concerns regarding Officer Smith's fitness for duty based on concerns that he was not dependable.

         Washington, who is black, believes that in retaliation for this report, Officer Smith began spreading rumors to the Sheriff and others about Washington's prior employment. Among other things, Officer Smith allegedly said that Washington had a sexual affair with a white parolee while he was employed by the MDOC in Pontotoc, Mississippi.

         In response to the rumors, The Mayor of Nettleton, Jimmy Taylor, investigated the allegations. He first called Lee County Sheriff Johnson, who had no information. Sheriff Jim Johnson, however, referred Mayor Taylor to Pontotoc County Sheriff Mask. Sheriff Mask was also unable to confirm, but he said that the other Pontotoc officers had teased Washington regarding his inability to "get sex, " and they joked that he would only be able to do so with his female parolees. However, Sheriff Mask did not have information regarding any specific occurrences involving any specific parolee.

         After this investigation proved fruitless, in talking with Chief Heard, Mayor Taylor referred to Washington as Sheriff Johnson's "boy, " allegedly because Sheriff Johnson was unable to report specific negative information regarding Washington's supposed affair. Chief Heard told Washington about this, and that Mayor Taylor was frustrated by the lack of negative information. Chief Heard also told Washington that Sheriff Johnson wanted Washington fired for "messing with a white girl."

         According to Defendants, Chief Heard met with Mayor Taylor and Nettleton's City Clerk, Dana Burcham, on November 22, 2013, and the three discussed firing Washington. During the meeting, Mayor Taylor and Burcham told Chief Heard that other officers feared Washington. They had heard that Washington was discussing his work problems with certain citizens of Nettleton, and that Washington planned to hire a lawyer. Chief Heard allegedly told Washington about this conversation the next day, and he advised him to keep his "mouth shut" in the future. However, on November 26, Washington delivered a letter addressed to Mayor Taylor, with copies given to Chief Heard and Burcham. The letter alleged that the accusations of "messing with a white girl" and calling Washington the Sherriff s "boy" were racially discriminatory, and it asked Mayor Taylor to cease violating Washington's federally protected rights.

         Later that day, Washington was forced to end his shift early, and that afternoon, a special meeting of the City of Nettleton Board of Aldermen was called. At the meeting, Chief Heard recommended to the Board of Aldermen that Washington be fired. There is disagreement regarding the reasons given for the termination in the meeting. Mayor Taylor alleges that Chief Heard cited "poor performance, " while Chief Heard says that he recommended that Washington be fired for "undermining his position." Burcham merely remembers that Chief Heard simply stated that he recommended that Washington be terminated and then the Board voted, without a full discussion of the reasons. However, within the meeting Minutes, the reason recorded for termination was "Fred Washington was a probationary employee." The day after the Board meeting, Washington was informed of his termination. When he returned his equipment to the police station, he noticed that Officer Smith was working his shift. Washington believes that Mayor Taylor had led a charge to terminate Washington, but that the decision was ultimately made in retaliation for the letter he wrote regarding the allegations of racism, violations of rights and the unfair treatment he received in comparison with Officer Smith.

         After he was fired, Washington filed for unemployment benefits with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security ("MDES"). In response to the filing, Burcham submitted a form stating that "[e]mployee was fired as a probationary employee." The MDES awarded benefits, and the City of Nettleton appealed the decision. A hearing was held, wherein Burcham testified that Washington was a probationary hire, and that he had been fired based upon Chief Heard's recommendation. However, Burcham also testified that though Washington "could not perform job duties, " he had not violated policy and did not commit misconduct. Washington testified that he was never given a reason for his firing, and he was never told to appear before the Board. The decision to award benefits was upheld because the "employer admitted the claimant did not commit misconduct."

         Washington filed his charge of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ("EEOC") on May 5, 2015. After the EEOC issued its Dismissal and Notice of Rights, Mr. Washington made a Freedom of Information Act ("FOIA") request for the EEOC investigative file. Upon receipt of the investigative file, Washington saw, allegedly for the first time, four write-ups used by the Defendant Nettleton to justify firing him. Subsequent to receiving a right to sue letter, Washington filed the complaint in this case.

         Washington names as Defendants the City of Nettleton, along with Mayor Taylor and Chief Heard, in their individual capacities only. As against the City, Washington advances two claims: race discrimination and retaliation, both in violation of Title VII, 42 U.S.C. §§ 2000e-l to 2000e-17. With respect to Mayor Taylor, Washington advances a claim for denial of equal protection based on his race in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment. As to both Mayor Taylor and Chief Heard, Washington advances a claim for retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.

         Summary ...


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