WILLIAM DONALD COLLINS, SR., MARY SKINNER COLLINS, WILLIAM DONALD COLLINS, II, COLT MAKAI COLLINS AND LISA MARIE COLLINS
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
OF JUDGMENT: 12/29/2016
HON. VERNON R. COTTEN NEWTON COUNTY CIRCUIT COURT JUDGE.
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
ATTORNEY FOR APPELLANTS: JOEL W. HOWELL, III.
ATTORNEYS FOR APPELLEES: JAMES CORNELIUS GRIFFIN J. RICHARD
BARRY BRIAN DOUGLAS MAYO.
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.
AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Standard of Review
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
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.
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,  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.
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.
The Trial Court's Authority
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).
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.
"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)).
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.
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 ...