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Collins v. City of Newton

Supreme Court of Mississippi, En Banc

March 8, 2018

WILLIAM DONALD COLLINS, SR., MARY SKINNER COLLINS, WILLIAM DONALD COLLINS, II, COLT MAKAI COLLINS AND LISA MARIE COLLINS
v.
CITY OF NEWTON, MAYOR DAVID CARR, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS MAYOR OF THE CITY OF NEWTON, CLARENCE PARKS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS FIRE CHIEF FOR THE CITY OF NEWTON, JOEL SKINNER, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS FORMER FIRE CHIEF FOR THE CITY OF NEWTON, MURRAY WEEMS, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ALDERMAN FOR THE CITY OF NEWTON, AND RONNIE JOHNSON, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS OFFICIAL CAPACITY AS ALDERMAN FOR THE CITY OF NEWTON

          DATE OF JUDGMENT: 12/29/2016

         TRIAL HON. VERNON R. COTTEN NEWTON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE.

          TRIAL COURT ATTORNEYS: JAMES GARY McGEE, JR. MARCIE TANNER SOUTHERLAND J. RICHARD BARRY JOHN GORDON ROACH, III BRIAN DOUGLAS MAYO MATTHEW ELDER RUTHERFORD, JR. KENNETH DUSTIN MARKHAM CHRISTOPHER MICHAEL GRAVES DANIEL HOWARD JUNKIN JAMES CORNELIUS GRIFFIN.

          ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS: JOEL W. HOWELL, III.

          ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: JAMES CORNELIUS GRIFFIN J. RICHARD BARRY BRIAN DOUGLAS MAYO.

          COLEMAN, JUSTICE,

         ¶1. Several members of the Collins family sued the City of Newton and several of its officials alleging wrongful termination, intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligent infliction of emotional distress, slander, and reckless disregard of property. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment, which the trial court denied. After a new judge was assigned to the case, the defendants filed a motion for relief or reconsideration of the denial of summary judgment under Mississippi Rule of Civil Procedure 60; the trial court granted the Rule 60 relief. The Collinses appeal from the trial court's order granting summary judgment in favor of the defendants. Discerning no error, we affirm.

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         ¶2. The plaintiffs are members of a firefighting family. William Donald Collins Sr. is the patriarch of the family. Mary Collins, Donald's wife, is the matriarch. Donald was a volunteer firefighter with the City of Newton Fire Department for more than thirty years. Mary never has had any type of employment relationship with the Fire Department. Donald and Mary have three adult sons, William Donald "Donnie" Collins II, Jay Collins, and Colt Collins. Donnie and Colt were full-time, paid firefighters with the Fire Department in 2012, when the events at issue occurred. Jay also was a full-time, paid, firefighter with the Fire Department and remains so. Colt is married to Lisa Collins, who was a volunteer firefighter with the Fire Department in 2012.

         ¶3. The Collinses claim that problems began in 2009, when the firefighters voted that Donnie be their chief over the then-current Chief Bounds. The Board of Aldermen ratified the vote, and Mayor David Carr vetoed the ratification. The Board overturned Mayor Carr's veto. Mayor Carr obtained an ethics opinion regarding Donnie being his brothers' boss, and the Board then declined to accept Donnie as fire chief. Donnie was made assistant chief and Walter Gordon was hired as chief. After Chief Gordon left, sometime in early 2012, Clarence Parks was hired as chief. On June 20, 2012, Chief Parks distributed a letter to all Fire Department personnel, Mayor Carr, and the Board, declaring every rank, position, and title in the Fire Department vacant, effectively stripping all firefighters of their ranks. Shortly thereafter, around July 3, 2012, Joel Skinner was made interim chief. Skinner is Mary's brother's son; thus he is Donald's and Mary's nephew and first cousin to Donnie and Colt. Around July 5, 2012, after an argument with Skinner in a meeting, Donald was terminated from the Newton Fire Department. On about July 18, 2012, Donnie and Colt were terminated from the Newton Fire Department, and Lisa was terminated about July 23, 2012.

         ¶4. On July 21, 2012, Donald's and Mary's home was struck by lightning, caught fire, and burned. The home was a total loss. No one was injured. The Collinses claim that, during the fire, Interim Chief Skinner did several things incorrectly. Interim Chief Skinner allegedly did not have a sufficient number of firefighters to fight the fire adequately. Furthermore, the Collinses allege that the lack of commanding officers due to the elimination of all ranks led to inadequate firefighting, that Interim Chief Skinner sent firefighters away from the scene of the fire, that he fought the fire from the front when it should have been attacked from the back, that he lacked the experience to be interim chief, and that he ordered several of the Collinses to leave the scene instead of allowing them to help.

         ¶5. In July 2013, Donald and Mary, Donnie, Colt, and Lisa sent notices of claims to the City of Newton. On October 29, 2013, Donald and Mary filed a complaint against the City of Newton, Mayor Carr, former Fire Chief Parks, Former Fire Chief Skinner, three of the aldermen for the City of Newton, and several John Does. In their complaint, Donald and Mary alleged wrongful termination, infliction of emotional distress, slander, and failure to respond properly to the fire at their home. They alleged that, due to the personnel changes, the Fire Department was unable to respond properly to emergencies, thereby endangering the safety of the public and property of the City of Newton. On the same day, Donnie, Colt, and Lisa each filed separate complaints against the same defendants. Each alleged wrongful termination, infliction of emotional distress, and slander. The four cases eventually were consolidated.

         ¶6. After discovery, the defendants moved for summary judgment. The trial court, Judge Marcus Gordon presiding, denied the motion. The defendants moved to alter or amend the judgment under Rule 59, and the trial court denied the motion. The defendants petitioned the Court for interlocutory appeal, and the Court declined to accept the appeal and remanded the case. Upon remand, Judge Gordon had left the bench. The case was assigned to Judge Vernon Cotten. The defendants then filed a motion for relief from order or reconsideration pursuant to Rule 60. The trial court granted the motion and dismissed the case.

         ¶7. The Collinses appeal, arguing that the court erred by revisiting the motion for summary judgment under Rule 60 and by inappropriately revisiting a prior order by another trial judge. They further argued that, even if it was appropriate to revisit the prior order, summary judgment was inappropriate.

         ANALYSIS

         I. Standard of Review

         ¶8. The Court reviews legal issues de novo. Caves v. Yarbrough, 991 So.2d 142, 146 (Miss. 2008). Thus, the Court reviews the Rule 60 argument and whether it was appropriate for a successor judge to revisit a prior order de novo.

         ¶9. The Collinses argue that if the merits of summary judgment are reached, the Court should review the case under the de novo standard for summary judgment, as the substance of the order is to grant the motion for summary judgment. The defendants argue that the Court should review the case under an abuse of discretion standard, as granting or denying relief under Rule 60 typically is reviewed for an abuse of discretion.

         ¶10. Although the standard of review was not specifically discussed, cases with a similar procedural posture have been reviewed under the de novo summary judgment standard. See Holland v. Peoples Bank & Trust Co., 3 So.3d 94 (Miss. 2008) (a motion for summary judgment was denied, defendants filed a motion for reconsideration, a new trial judge granted the motion for reconsideration, [1] the Court reviewed the decision under the summary judgment standard); Duckworth v. Warren, 10 So.3d 433, 436-37 (Miss. 2009). The substance of the order is that it grants the defendants' motion for summary judgment, thus the Court will review the merits under the summary judgment standard.

         ¶11. The Court reviews a trial court's grant or denial of summary judgment de novo. Crosthwait v. Southern Health Corp. of Houston, Inc., 94 So.3d 1070, 1073 (Miss. 2012). Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, show that there is no genuine issue as to any material fact[.]" Miss. R. Civ. P. 56(c). The evidence must be viewed in the light most favorable to the opposing party. Duckworth, 10 So.3d at 436-37.

         II. The Trial Court's Authority

         ¶12. The Collinses argue that Rule 60 applies only to final orders, and that the orders denying the motion for summary judgment were interlocutory in nature. As a result, they argue that it was inappropriate for the trial court to grant relief under Rule 60. They also argue that it was inappropriate for a successor trial judge to reverse the previous trial judge's rulings, citing Amiker v. Drugs for Less, Inc., 796 So.2d 942 (Miss. 2000).

         ¶13. It is true that the Court has stated that Rule 60 "applies only where the judgment or order is final." Holland, 3 So.3d at 104. Rule 60 provides relief "from a final judgment, order, or proceeding." Miss. R. Civ. P. 60(b). Here, the trial court's reliance on Rule 60 was misplaced. However, the Court has made clear that a trial judge does have authority to revise an order denying summary judgment under Rule 54. Mauck v. Columbus Hotel Co., 741 So.2d 259, 268 (Miss. 1999); see also Holland, 3 So.3d at 104. Rule 54 provides that certain interlocutory orders are "subject to revision at any time before the entry of judgment adjudicating all the claims and the rights and liabilities of all the parties." Miss. R. Civ. P. 54(b). Accordingly, the trial court had authority to revise the order denying the defendants' motion for summary judgment. Holland, 3 So.3d 94; see also Tucker v. Williams, 198 So.3d 299 (Miss. 2016). The Court also has held that it is appropriate for a successor trial judge to revise a denial of summary judgment by the previous trial judge. Holland, 3 So.3d at 104. For the foregoing reasons, we conclude that the present issue is without merit.

         III. Summary Judgment

         A. Wrongful Termination

         ¶14. "Mississippi adheres to the common law doctrine of employment-at-will." Senseney v. Mississippi Power Co., 914 So.2d 1225, 1228 (Miss. Ct. App. 2005) (citing Kelly v. Miss. Valley Gas Co., 397 So.2d 874, 874 (Miss. 1981)). Under the doctrine, either the employer or the employee may terminate the employment relationship at will unless the parties are bound by an employment contract or a contract providing for a term of employment. Id. (citing Perry v. Sears, Roebuck & Co., 508 So.2d 1086, 1088 (Miss. 1987)). The doctrine permits an employer to terminate an employee at any time for a good reason, a wrong reason, or no reason at all. Id. (citing McCrory v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 755 So.2d 1141, 1142 (Miss. Ct. App. 1999)).

         ¶15. The Collinses argue that Mississippi Code Section 21-31-23 provides an exception to their at-will employment status. Section 21-31-23 provides that firefighters in the classified civil service have certain procedural rights before they may be terminated in most situations. Miss. Code Ann. § 21-31-23 (Rev. 2015). However, the code section protects only civil service employees in municipalities coming within the purview of the civil service laws. Miss. Code Ann. §§ 21-31-1, 21-31-13 (Rev. 2015). The City of Newton does not have a civil service commission and does not fall within the purview of the civil service laws, so the Collinses' argument is without merit.

         ¶16. Alternatively, the Collinses argue that the Newton Fire Department Standard Operating Guidelines provide an exception to the at-will employment doctrine. In Bobbittv. Orchard, Ltd., 603 So.2d 356, 357 (Miss. 1992), the Court ...


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