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Griggs v. Chickasaw County

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

July 28, 2017

LAMON K. GRIGGS PLAINTIFF
v.
CHICKASAW COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI DEFENDANT

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          SHARION AYCOCK UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Presently before the Court is Defendant Chickasaw County's Motion for Summary Judgment [46]. Plaintiff has responded [50], and Defendant replied [51]. Therefore, this motion is ripe for review.

         Background and Procedural History

         Griggs served as Chickasaw County's Solid Waste Enforcement Officer beginning in 2000. As part of his duties, Griggs applied for grants each year on Chickasaw County's behalf, including a competitive grant, a noncompetitive grant, and a tire-recycling grant. At least fifty percent of his salary was paid from the competitive grants. Though Griggs wrote the grants and submitted them to the Mississippi Department of Environmental Quality (“MDEQ”), he was not involved in the remainder of the process. MDEQ notified the County's Chancery Clerk when and if the grants were approved. The Chancery Clerk would then take the grant approval to the Board of Supervisors who would execute it, and then send it back to MDEQ headquarters in Jackson, Mississippi.

         Griggs successfully received required funding from the grants until 2014. According to MDEQ representative Mark Williams, MDEQ did not disperse any funds to Chickasaw County in 2014, as the Grant applications made in September 2014 were somehow lost. Though Griggs was able to obtain the noncompetitive grant funds in 2015, he was unsuccessful as to the competitive grant that year. According to Griggs, the MDEQ employee who previously handled Chickasaw County's grants retired in June 2015. Griggs posits that the competitive grant application may have been lost in the office shuffle, or perhaps it had been lost in the mail.

         On September 22, 2015, Griggs was called into the Board of Supervisors meeting to discuss the unsecured grant funds. He brought with him copies of the submitted grant applications, and he explained that he did not know about the money or why the County did not receive funding that year. In any event, citing the lack of funding resulting from grant deficit, the Chickasaw County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to eliminate Griggs' position as Solid Waste Enforcement Officer. A motion was made to move Griggs into the position of bailiff, where he was paid $75.00 per day. Griggs did not appeal the decision eliminating his position, but stayed on as bailiff until the end of the Board's term, December 31, 2015.

         Griggs filed the instant lawsuit alleging that the position of Chickasaw County Solid Waste Enforcement Officer was eliminated in violation of his First Amendment rights. Concurrent to the preceding facts, Griggs ran for Sheriff of Chickasaw County as an independent candidate in 2015. However, according to Griggs, several board members publicly supported Chief Deputy James Meyers, the democratic candidate for the position. In late summer 2015, Griggs began to hear rumors that board members wanted him to pull out of the Sheriff race. After his demotion from waste enforcement, Griggs lost the Sheriff's election. When Meyers became Sheriff, Griggs's position as bailiff was not renewed, ending his career with the County.

         Following the September 22, 2015 Board meeting, Griggs applied for and received unemployment benefits with the Mississippi Employment Security Commission (“MESC”). Griggs premised his application for benefits upon the qualifying reason of “laid off/lack of work.” Upon realizing that competitive grants would not be awarded unless they hired a new solid waste officer, the county eventually designated Howard Woodard as the Solid Waste Enforcement Officer and Griggs's replacement.

         Analysis and Discussion

         Defendant moves for summary judgment, arguing several bases. The Court first addresses Defendant's arguments as to claim, issue, and procedural preclusion, and the subsequent section will address the merits of Plaintiff's First Amendment claim.

         Defendant first and primarily argues that Plaintiff is precluded from bringing his Section 1983 claims in this Court. Defendant argues that the Court cannot entertain Plaintiff's claims because Plaintiff failed to appeal the Board's termination decision, as, in Defendant's opinion, is mandated by Mississippi statute. See Miss. Code Ann. §11-51-75. As an alternative to this argument, Defendant argues that Plaintiff is barred because the Board's decision constitutes a final administrative decision negating the federal court's ability to hear Plaintiff's claims. Next, Defendant argues that Plaintiff is barred from pursuing his claim in federal court because of the Rooker-Feldman Doctrine. Defendant next argues that Plaintiff is judicially estopped from claiming that the Board's termination decision was a political patronage dismissal because, when applying for benefits, Plaintiff reported to the MESC that he had been laid off.

         Procedural Preclusion

         A. Bill of Exceptions

         Mississippi's Bill of Exceptions statute provides that:

Any person aggrieved by a judgment or decision of the Board of Supervisors, or municipal authorities of a city, town, or village, may appeal within ten (10) days from the date of adjournment at which session the Board of Supervisors or municipal authorities rendered such judgment or decision, and may embody the facts, judgment and decision in a bill of exceptions which shall be signed by the person acting as president of the Board of Supervisors or of the municipal authorities. The clerk thereof shall transmit the bill of exceptions to the circuit court at once, and the court shall either in term or in vacation hear and determine the same on the case as presented by the bill of exceptions as an appellate court, and shall affirm or reverse the judgment . . . .

Miss. Code. Ann. § 11-51-75. Defendant argues that because Plaintiff did not perfect an appeal within the statutory constraints of Section 11-51-75, his action is untimely. Furthermore, Defendant argues that Section 11-51-75 was Plaintiff's exclusive remedy, and that failure to appeal under the statute results in a final judgment. Citing the Full Faith and Credit Clause, or Title 28 U.S.C. 1738, Defendant argues that preclusive effect should be given to the Board's decision, because Mississippi state court would do so, even for Section 1983 claims. As an extension of Defendant's Bill of Exceptions argument, Defendant posits that Plaintiff is precluded by collateral estoppel principles from filing suit due to the finality of the Board's decision, as a state administrative agency.

         The Full Faith and Credit Statute, 28 U.S.C. § 1738, generally requires “federal courts to give preclusive effect to state-court judgments whenever the courts of the State from which the judgments emerged would do so.” Allen v. McCurry, 449 U.S. 90, 101 S.Ct. 411, 66 L.Ed.2d 308 (1980) (issue preclusion); Migra v. Warren City Sch. Dist. Bd. of Educ., 465 U.S. 75, 85, 104 S.Ct. 892, 79 L.Ed.2d 56 (1984) (claim preclusion). Under Mississippi law, four elements are required for collateral estoppel, or issue preclusion, to apply. “The party must be seeking to re-litigate a certain issue, that issue must already have been litigated in a prior action, the issue must have been determined in the prior suit, and the determination of the issue must have been essential to the prior action.” Stafford v. True Temper Sports, 123 F.3d 291, 295 (5th Cir. 1997) (citing Raju v. Rhodes, 7 F.3d 1210, 1215 (5th Cir. 1993), cert. denied, 511 U.S. 1032, 114 S.Ct. 1543, 128 L.Ed.2d 194 (1994)). Defendant argues that Mississippi state court would consider Plaintiff's claims procedurally barred because he failed to file a Bill of Exceptions.

         Though Defendant has not provided, and the Court has not obtained elsewhere, Fifth Circuit law specifically determining whether Section 11-51-75, and by extension Section 1738, bars Plaintiff's Section 1983 claim in federal court, the Court finds guidance in dicta from the Supreme Court. In Haring v. Prosise, 462 U.S. 306, 313, 103 S.Ct. 2368, 76 L.Ed. 2D 595 (1983), the Supreme Court reviewed the principles governing whether a Section 1983 claimant would be collaterally estopped from litigating an issue on the basis of a prior state-court judgment. The Court noted:

In federal actions, including § 1983 actions, a state-court judgment will not be given collateral estoppel effect, however, where “the party against whom an earlier court decision is asserted did not have a full and fair opportunity to litigate the claim or issue decided by the first court.” Id., at 101, 101 S.Ct., at 418. Moreover, additional exceptions to collateral estoppel may be warranted in § 1983 actions in light of the “understanding of § 1983” that ...

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