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Cooksey v. City of Gautier

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

August 20, 2018

JERRY COOKSEY PLAINTIFF
v.
CITY OF GAUTIER and DANTE ELBIN, in his Official Capacity as Chief of Police for the City of Gautier and Individually DEFENDANTS

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING MOTION [11] OF DEFENDANT DANTE ELBIN IN HIS INDIVIDUAL CAPACITY FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AS TO QUALIFIED IMMUNITY AND DENYING PLAINTIFF'S MOTION [25] FOR LEAVE TO AMEND

          HALIL SULEYMAN OZERDEN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         BEFORE THE COURT is the Motion [11] for Summary Judgment as to Qualified Immunity filed by Defendant Dante Elbin (“Chief Elbin”) in his individual capacity and the Motion [25] for Leave to Amend filed by Plaintiff Jerry Cooksey (“Cooksey”). Cooksey brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Defendants City of Gautier, Mississippi, and Chief Elbin in his official and individual capacities. Cooksey, a former Gautier police officer, claims that he reported to Chief Elbin and the City administration that City employees were committing numerous crimes. Chief Elbin allegedly responded by demoting Cooksey to a less desirable position, and Cooksey was eventually terminated from his employment with the City.

         Before discovery commenced, Chief Elbin moved for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. Cooksey initially responded by requesting the Court to allow discovery into his claims, but the Magistrate Judge and then this Court denied this request. Orders [17][22]. Cooksey has now filed a Response [26] to Chief Elbin's Motion for Summary Judgment, and has separately filed a Motion [25] for Leave to Amend. After due consideration of the record, the submissions on file, and relevant legal authority, the Court finds that Chief Elbin's Motion should be granted, and Cooksey's claims against him in his individual capacity should be dismissed with prejudice. The Court further finds that Cooksey's Motion for Leave to Amend should be denied. Cooksey's claims against the City and Chief Elbin in his official capacity will proceed.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual background

         According to the Amended Complaint, which is the operative pleading, Cooksey was employed as a police officer with the City of Gautier, Am. Compl. [8] ¶ 7, and worked as Captain of Administration, which according to him was second-in-command to the police chief, id. ¶ 8. Chief Elbin was the chief of police. See Id. ¶ 10. Cooksey alleges that he learned of criminal acts being committed within the police department, such as employees fabricating time cards, improperly spending grant funds, and committing fraud, embezzlement, and tax evasion. Id. ¶ 11-15. Cooksey reportedly informed Chief Elbin of these criminal acts. Id. ¶ 10.

         Cooksey claims that during the summer of 2015 he informed City Manager Samantha Abell about the alleged crimes he had reported to Chief Elbin. Id. ¶ 19. Abell allegedly became irritated with Cooksey and accused him of lying, id., and presented a report to Chief Elbin stating that Cooksey was attempting to undermine the Chief, id. ¶ 22. Abell purportedly discussed Cooksey's claims of criminal conduct with Chief Elbin, who in turn admonished Cooksey for reporting to Abell. Id. ¶ 22, 24. Cooksey was later transferred to the position of Captain of the Patrol Division, which according to Cooksey, was “a demotion which was much less desirable than Captain of Administration.” Id. ¶ 24.

         In September 2016, the new City Manager, Paula Yancey, and City Attorney Josh Danos placed Cooksey on leave. Id. ¶ 29. Yancey and Danos questioned Cooksey about Abell's prior report, and Cooksey was then given the option to resign in lieu of termination. Id. ¶¶ 29-30. Cooksey asserts that the City concocted false reasons for his termination, namely that he had sexually harassed another employee. Id. ¶ 32. Cooksey ultimately resigned, but now alleges that the City forced him under coercion and duress to waive any claims he may have against the City. Id. ¶ 39.

         B. Procedural history

         1. Initial pleadings

         Cooksey filed a Complaint [1] in this Court on December 29, 2016, advancing claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for deprivation of his freedom of speech. Compl. [1] at 8. On April 13, 2017, the City of Gautier and Chief Elbin filed an Answer [3], raising numerous defenses, including that Chief Elbin is entitled to qualified immunity. Answer [3] at 9. On July 19, 2017, the Magistrate Judge stayed proceedings, including discovery, on grounds that Defendants had raised sovereign and qualified immunity as affirmative defenses.

         On September 1, 2017, Cooksey filed an Amended Complaint [8]. The Amended Complaint advances a claim under 42 U.S.C § 1983 styled as a cause of action for “Due process - freedom of speech.” Am. Compl. [8] at 8. Cooksey alleges that “Defendants retaliated against Cooksey” for exercising his constitutional right to free speech by complaining of and reporting the unlawful acts, id., and that Defendants had no good faith basis for the retaliatory termination, id.

         The Amended Complaint seeks a declaratory judgment that Cooksey's release of any claims he may have against the City is invalid based on numerous contract defenses and is a violation of his constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government. Id. Cooksey raises a “taxpayer cause of action” on grounds that Defendants unlawfully expended taxpayer funds in violation of state and federal law. Id. at 9. Lastly, Cooksey claims that by terminating him for reporting criminal acts, “Defendants violated Mississippi's public policy exception to at will employment.” Id.

         2. Chief Elbin's Motion for Summary Judgment

         Chief Elbin has filed a Motion [11] for Summary Judgment as to Qualified Immunity, contending that he is entitled to qualified immunity in his individual capacity because he did not violate Cooksey's clearly established constitutional rights. Def.'s Mem. [12] at 8-9, 14-15. Chief Elbin argues that Cooksey did not suffer an adverse employment action when he was transferred from the Administration Division to the Patrol Division. Id. at 11-13. Chief Elbin further posits that “[i]t appears Cooksey is attempting to attribute his termination to Elbin, ” and maintains that he is entitled to summary judgment on this claim because Cooksey cannot present any facts to show that Chief Elbin terminated Cooksey, when in fact it was City Manager Yancey who did so. Id. at 8, 10.

         Cooksey countered by filing a Motion [15] for Leave to Conduct Discovery, asserting that he was entitled to conduct immunity-related discovery in order to respond to Chief Elbin's Motion for Summary Judgment. Mot. [15] at 1. Cooksey argued that the Motion for Summary Judgment raised factual issues of “[w]hether Cooksey's transfer from Administration to Patrol constitutes an ‘adverse action, '” and “[w]hether Defendant Elbin had any involvement with Cooksey's termination.” Id. at 1-2. Chief Elbin responded that Cooksey's discovery request was overbroad and requested that the Court enter a narrowly-tailored order limiting discovery to whether Cooksey's transfer was the equivalent of a discharge. Def.'s Resp. [16] at 3. Chief Elbin pointed out that “Cooksey's Complaint does not allege that Elbin terminated Cooksey's employment.” Id.

         In an Order [17] entered on November 17, 2017, the Magistrate Judge denied Cooksey's Motion for Leave to Conduct Discovery, finding that Cooksey “fails to even address the Court's considerations relevant to determining the necessity of immunity-related discovery.” Order [17] at 4. The Magistrate Judge noted that Cooksey did not argue or explain how his Amended Complaint pleaded specific facts which, if true, would overcome Elbin's qualified immunity. Id. at 5.

         Cooksey objected to the Magistrate Judge's Order, maintaining that he could not respond to the Motion for Summary Judgment without conducting discovery into whether Cooksey's transfer constituted an adverse action and whether Chief Elbin was involved with Cooksey's termination. Pl.'s Obj. [18] at 1, 7-8. On April 18, 2018, this Court found in its Order [22] that Cooksey's Amended Complaint does not contain any specific allegation that Chief Elbin terminated him, but rather asserts that the City and other administrators did. Order [22] at 11. The Court affirmed the Magistrate Judge's denial of Cooksey's discovery request on this issue. Id. The Court also agreed with the Magistrate Judge's refusal to permit discovery into the question of Cooksey's transfer because relevant information regarding whether the reassignment was adverse to Cooksey should be within Cooksey's own knowledge and possession, and he failed to demonstrate a need for discovery to oppose summary judgment on that claim. Id. at 12. The Court ordered Cooksey to respond to Chief Elbin's Motion for Summary Judgment. Id. at 13-14.

         In response to the Court's Order, on May 13, 2018, Cooksey filed a Response in opposition to the summary judgment motion, asserting that his transfer to Captain of Patrol constituted an adverse employment action because such position is less prestigious, involves fewer duties, and provides less room for advancement. Pl.'s Mem. [26] at 7. Furthermore, according to Cooksey, Chief Elbin uses such transfers as punishment. Id. at 5-6. Cooksey also argues that whether Chief Elbin caused his termination remains a disputed question of fact, as evidenced by Cooksey's allegations that Chief Elbin was involved with the investigation that led to Cooksey's termination and that it is City policy that Chief Elbin approve any decision to terminate a police officer. Id. at 8-9.

         Chief Elbin maintains in his Reply that the Amended Complaint's bald allegations, conclusory statements, and broad accusations against all Defendants fail to meet the heightened pleading standard necessary to overcome qualified immunity. Reply [28] at 2-3.

         3. Cooksey's Motion ...


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