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Coleman v. Mississippi Department of Marine Resources

United States District Court, S.D. Mississippi, Southern Division

September 12, 2017




         BEFORE THE COURT is the [33] Motion for Summary Judgment filed by the remaining Defendant in this case, the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources. Plaintiff Ava R. Coleman has responded, and the MDMR has replied. After due consideration of the submissions and the relevant law, it is the Court's opinion that the MDMR has shown there is no question of material fact for the jury. Accordingly, the defendant's Motion is granted and Plaintiff's claims are dismissed.


         Plaintiff Ava Coleman filed this lawsuit in the Circuit Court of Harrison County, Mississippi, complaining of termination from her long-time employment with the State of Mississippi. She had been employed by the Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks (“DWFP”) as the Lyman Fish Hatchery Manager for fifteen years when, in 2007, she was asked to transfer to the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (“MDMR”). She was to remain the Hatchery Manager, but she would be required to move from her on-site residence at the Hatchery.

         Coleman alleges that shortly after accepting the transfer, she began experiencing harassment and hostilities from the MDMR Chief of Staff, Joe Ziegler. She alleges during the next year, Ziegler did not supply her with the assistance and supplies she needed, locked her out of her office, placed an unqualified person as her supervisor, and lodged “bogus” disciplinary actions against her.

         Coleman filed grievances concerning Ziegler's actions to the Mississippi Employee Appeals Board. She alleges that an informal recommendation was made that the MDMR find a suitable position for her. After she returned to work and waited for a resolution, she found that she needed to request an extended medical leave to manage her feelings of anxiousness and fearfulness. Her request was granted in May 2008. Slightly more than one year later, in June 2009, Coleman returned to work. She was placed in a low-level, non-managerial, non-supervisory job at the MDMR and moved from her residence at the Hatchery. She then filed a Workers' Compensation Claim for job-related emotional distress, which resulted in a settlement in September 2014. A few weeks later, Coleman was terminated by letter from MDMR executive director Jamie Miller, effective October 9, 2014. (Am. Compl. Ex. A, ECF No. 7). Coleman alleges she was terminated for leaving the workplace without authorization. Miller's letter does not specify a reason for her termination, but informed Coleman that

[i]n accordance with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources Accountability and Reorganization Act (Senate Bill No. 2579, effective April 17, 2014), the MDMR is exempt from State Personnel Board rules, regulations, and procedures. During this exemption, you do not have state service protection, and may be terminated without cause or advanced notice.

(Pl. Resp. Attach 2 to Ex. C, ECF No. 37-4).

         Coleman's First Amended Complaint contains nine Counts. (Notice of Removal Ex. A 25-42, ECF No. 1-2). Count One is a Fourteenth Amendment claim brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Count Two alleges violations of §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986. Counts Three through Six are state law claims of breach of contract, interference with contract, and infliction of emotional distress. The last three Counts allege employment discrimination under Title VII, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (Counts Seven, Eight and Nine).

         Earlier in the case, the Court dismissed Coleman's claims against Defendant Jamie Miller, the MDMR executive director, in his individual and official capacity. (Mem. Op. & Order Granting Mot. to Dismiss, ECF No. 13), Coleman v. Miss. Dep't of Marine Res., No. 1:16cv289-LG-RHW, 2016 WL 5794772 (S.D.Miss. Oct. 4, 2016). Although given the opportunity to amend her claims against Miller, Coleman did not do so.

         The MDMR now moves for judgment as a matter of law on all of the claims against it. Coleman has responded in opposition, although she expressly conceded her Age Discrimination in Employment Act claim. (Pl. Resp. Mem. 18, ECF No. 38). The MDMR has replied in support of its Motion. The Court addresses the arguments regarding the remaining claims below.


         42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, and 1986

         The MDMR argues that Coleman may not bring a viable claim against it pursuant to sections 1983, 1985 or 1986 because it is not a “person” under those statutes. Bryant v. Military Dep't of State of Miss. ex rel. Miss. Air Nat. Guard, 381 F.Supp.2d 586, 592 (S.D.Miss. 2005), aff'd sub nom. Bryant v. Military Dep't of Miss., 597 F.3d 678 (5th Cir. 2010) (claims under §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986 barred because these statutes create rights solely against “persons” and a state is not considered a “person” under these statutes). Coleman argues that she has requested injunctive relief, and she can bring a viable claim for injunctive relief against a state official in his official capacity under these statutes, citing Will v. Mich. Dep't of State Police, 491 U.S. 58, 71, n. 10 (1989).

         Although there was a state official defendant in this lawsuit at one time, the claims against him were dismissed, and Coleman declined the opportunity to file amended claims against him. Thus, only the State entity itself remains as a defendant. The law is clear that the State is not a person for purposes of §§ 1983, 1985 and 1986, and therefore Coleman's claims against the MDMR pursuant to these statutes will be dismissed.

         Title VII

         Coleman's Title VII claims encompass sex/gender discrimination, hostile working environment and retaliation. In her Amended Complaint, response to this Motion, and affidavit attached to her response, Coleman refers to a charge of discrimination she made to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The Court is unable to locate it, or any EEOC documentation, in the record. “In order to file suit under Title VII, a plaintiff first must file a charge with the EEOC within 180 days of the alleged discriminatory act. If and once the EEOC issues a right-to-sue letter to the party who has filed the EEOC charge, that party has 90 days to file a Title VII action.” Price v. Choctaw Glove & Safety Co., 459 F.3d 595, 598 (5th Cir. 2006). These time periods act as statutes of limitation. Hood v. Sears Roebuck & Co., 168 F.3d 231, 232 (5th Cir. 1999). If the employee files a Title VII action, the claims must have been asserted in the formal charge of discrimination to the EEOC, or be claims that could be reasonably expected to grow out of the formal charge. Filer v. Donley, 690 F.3d 643, 647 (5th Cir. 2012). The MDMR does not challenge Coleman's employment discrimination claims for failure to exhaust her Title VII remedies, and therefore the Court will assume for purposes of this Motion that the plaintiff's charge was timely and included the grounds she has asserted here.

         a. Sex Discrimination

         Coleman argues that she experienced sex discrimination at the time of her termination because she was qualified to assume other positions in the MDMR that “less experienced, less qualified males” held. (Pl. Resp. Mem. 11-12, ECF No. 38). Essentially, a less experienced male should have been terminated so that she could have his position. Also, she was not offered the option of retirement while a male colleague, terminated during the same period, was given that choice. (Id. at 12).

         Because the evidence offered to support Coleman's sex discrimination claim is circumstantial rather than direct, she must establish a claim of discrimination under the McDonnell Douglas framework, and first make out a prima facie case of discrimination. Okoye v. Univ. of Tex. Hous. Health Sci. Ctr., 245 F.3d 507, 512-14 (5th Cir. 2001); see also McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792, 802 (1973). This requires Coleman to demonstrate that (1) she is a member of a protected group; (2) she was qualified for the position at issue; (3) she was discharged; and (4) after being discharged, her employer replaced her with a person who is not a member of the protected class, or those not members of the protected class remained in similar positions. Buchanan v. CCA Tallahatchie Cty. Corr. Facility, No. 4:16CV00200-SA-JMV, 2017 WL 875997, at *3 (N.D. Miss. Jan. 3, 2017), report and recommendation adopted, No. 4:16-CV-200-SA-JMV, 2017 WL 875852 (N.D. Miss. Mar. 3, 2017), aff'd sub nom. Buchanan v. CCA/Tallahatchie Cty. Corr. Facility, No. 17-60178, 2017 WL 3098177 (5th Cir. July 20, 2017); Okoye, 245 F.3d at 512-14.

         The MDMR addresses only the fourth prima facie element, asserting that Coleman's job duties were assumed by a sixty-eight year old female, Ms. Ross. According to one of Coleman's supervisors, Coleman had been assisted in her data collection activities by Ross and others, and Ross was given the primary responsibility for the data collection after Coleman was terminated. (Def. Mot. Ex. 3, at 11-14, ECF No. 33-3). Ross' duties are reassigned to other MDMR employees only when Ross takes leave or a vacation day. (Id. at 12, 44-45). ...

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