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Mayfield v. Butler Snow, LLP

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

September 18, 2018

BUTLER SNOW LLP; DONALD CLARK, JR.; THE CITY OF MADISON, MISSISSIPPI; MARY HAWKINS-BUTLER, Individually and in her Official Capacity; POLICE CHIEF GENE WALDROP, Individually and in his Official Capacity; CHUCK HARRISON, Individually and in his Official Capacity; VICKIE CURRIE, Individually and in her Official Capacity; RICHARD WILBOURN, III; JOHN AND JANE DOES 1-10 DEFENDANTS AND THAD COCHRAN MOVANT



         Mark Mayfield lived in Madison County, Mississippi. He and his wife, Robin, were proud parents of two sons, Owen and William. He practiced real estate law, was active in the Baptist Church, and was a founder of the Mississippi Tea Party.

         In 2014, Mayfield's activism led him to volunteer for a political campaign. He enthusiastically supported State Senator Chris McDaniel's effort to unseat U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. Sadly, Mayfield's actions during that campaign would ultimately lead to his death.

         Now before the Court are a variety of motions in which the defendants seek to be relieved of liability for Mayfield's passing. All will be discussed below.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         The following allegations and quotes are drawn from the amended complaint. They are taken as true for present purposes.

         In 2014, Mississippi was due to elect someone to the United States Senate. A contentious Republican Party primary was underway. Many members of the Mississippi Tea Party supported State Senator Chris McDaniel's attempt to oust incumbent U.S. Senator Thad Cochran. Mark Mayfield was among those Tea Partiers. He got involved with the McDaniel campaign.

         McDaniel supporters perceived themselves to be up against a politically and financially powerful “Republican Establishment.” Cochran had been a U.S. Senator since 1978. His reelection campaign had the backing of many powerful Mississippians and institutions, including Mississippi's “most politically connected and powerful law firm”-Butler Snow LLP. The firm, based in Ridgeland, has offices throughout the southeastern United States and other parts of the country, including Washington, D.C., Boston, and Denver, and even as far away as London and Singapore. The firm's members include former Republican National Committee Chairman and Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour, former U.S. Senator David Vitter, and other ex-politicians. Cochran's reelection campaign also drew support from many other state and local politicians.

         The McDaniel camp thought the Republican Establishment was playing dirty. According to the amended complaint, Butler Snow was providing legal and financial support to Cochran's campaign and an “independent” Super PAC supporting Cochran's reelection effort. If true, that coordination would violate federal election law. The amended complaint alleges that the Super PAC, called “Mississippi Conservatives, ” was organized and operated by Haley Barbour and his family. It further claims that Barbour was secretly and illegally providing financial guarantees to Trustmark National Bank so that the Super PAC could get a bank loan. When the secret loan was finally unearthed, the Federal Election Commission fined the Super PAC $19, 000.

         McDaniel supporters John Mary, Rick Sager, Clayton Kelly, and Richard Wilbourn III (“the conspirators”) decided to fight back. They thought Cochran was a hypocrite and an adulterer who lived with his longtime aide in Washington, D.C. while his aging wife, Rose, was left alone in a Madison, Mississippi assisted living facility called St. Catherine's Village.[1] The conspirators planned to take a photo of the bedridden Mrs. Cochran and use it in an attack ad against Cochran.

         The conspirators sought Mayfield's assistance, knowing that his mother also lived in St. Catherine's Village. Mayfield refused to photograph Mrs. Cochran but agreed to “show where the room was.” So in late March or early April 2014, Mayfield met Wilbourn at St. Catherine's Village. Mayfield “pointed Wilbourn down the hall . . . to where Rose Cochran's room was located.” Easter Sunday fell on April 20. That day, Kelly went to Mrs. Cochran's room and took a video of her lying in her bed. He posted an attack ad on YouTube six days later. The ad contained a still photo of Mrs. Cochran in her bed. The video went viral and was taken down in a matter of hours.

         Cochran and his campaign retained Don Clark, the chairman of Butler Snow, to represent them in the Rose Cochran “incident.” In mid-May, Clark told the Mayor of the City of Madison, Mary Hawkins-Butler, that the incident should be treated criminally, as it was a possible case of exploitation of a vulnerable adult. The Mayor referred him to Madison Police Chief Gene Waldrop. Clark then pitched various criminal charges to Chief Waldrop and his officers. The Police Department decided to pursue the matter.

         On May 16, the Madison Police Department arrested Kelly and charged him with exploitation of a vulnerable adult. At that moment Mayfield and Wilbourn were campaigning for McDaniel at the Ross Barnett Reservoir. Additional charges would later be brought against Kelly. He eventually pled guilty to burglary.

         On May 22, the Madison Police Department arrested Mayfield, Mary, and Sager for conspiracy. The basis for Mayfield's arrest warrant was Officer Vickie Currie's affidavit stating that Mayfield had communicated with the other conspirators to photograph Mrs. Cochran. The police also executed search warrants on Mayfield's home and office. The basis for those warrants was Officer Chuck Harrison's affidavits indicating that Mayfield's office would have evidence that he inflicted pain on a vulnerable person. Mayfield's bond was set at $250, 000.[2]

         Mayfield's largest client, Trustmark National Bank, abandoned him the next day. That caused the “complete collapse of his law practice.”[3] Mayfield became depressed, sought professional help, and was prescribed medication for sleep, depression, and anxiety. His wife experienced similar symptoms and was also prescribed medication.

         On June 27, 2014, Robin Mayfield found her husband in their basement, dead of a gunshot wound to the head. He was 57. The coroner ruled it a suicide.

         Robin, her sons, and the Mayfield estate filed this suit three years later. They assert wrongful death, civil conspiracy, negligent infliction of emotional distress, § 1983, and related causes of action against Butler Snow, Clark, the City of Madison, Mayor Hawkins-Butler, Chief Waldrop, Officer Harrison, Officer Currie, and Wilbourn. The plaintiffs claim that the defendants violated rights guaranteed by the First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution.

         The plaintiffs have a variety of grievances. They say the Cochran campaign and Butler Snow pressed charges for political advantage so that they could smear the McDaniel campaign for associating with criminals. They say Mayor Hawkins-Butler and members of her City's police department were longtime Cochran supporters who arrested Mayfield in retaliation for his political views. They say the police were wrong to charge Mayfield at all because his speech- disclosing Mrs. Cochran's room number to Wilbourn-was protected by the First Amendment, and that the police further erred by charging him with a felony, since the value of any exploitation did not exceed $250. They say the District Attorney's Office falsely and recklessly blamed Mayfield for giving Kelly the location of Mrs. Cochran's room, when in fact Mayfield told Wilbourn, who then told Kelly. They say Butler Snow and the City of Madison were in cahoots because Butler Snow has represented the City in bond issuances and lobbying for years. They express anger and heartbreak at Wilbourn's betrayal of Mayfield, his purported friend, and disbelief that the authorities never charged Wilbourn with conspiracy.

         The defendants have all responded with motions to dismiss. They contend that Mayfield's arrest was supported by probable cause, that his claims are untimely, and that his death was his responsibility alone.

         II. Legal Standards

         A. Motions to Dismiss

         When considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court accepts the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and makes reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). A satisfactory complaint will “contain a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Id. at 677-78 (quotation marks and citation omitted). This requires “more than an unadorned, the defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation, ” but the complaint need not have “detailed factual allegations.” Id. at 678 (quotation marks and citation omitted). The plaintiff's claims must also be plausible on their face, which means there is “factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. (citation omitted).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Four defendants have invoked the defense of qualified immunity.

         “Qualified immunity shields government officials from civil damages liability insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Pasco ex rel. Pasco v. Knoblauch, 566 F.3d 572, 578 (5th Cir. 2009) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “More precisely, the contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right . . . in the light of pre-existing law the unlawfulness must be apparent.” Id. (quotation marks, citation, and brackets omitted).

         At the motion to dismiss stage, a qualified immunity analysis requires the Court to decide “(1) whether facts alleged or shown by plaintiff make out the violation of a constitutional right, and (2) if so, whether that right was clearly established at the time of the defendant's alleged misconduct.” Id. at 579 (citations omitted).

         III. ...

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