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Harris v. Noxubee County

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

October 19, 2018

VALERIE DENECE HARRIS PLAINTIFF
v.
NOXUBEE COUNTY, MISSISSIPPI and BETTY S. ROBINSON DEFENDANTS

          ORDER GRANTING SUMMARY JUDGMENT

          CARLTON W. REEVES UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court are three motions for summary judgment filed by Valerie Harris, Noxubee County, and Betty Robinson. Docket Nos. 40, 43, 45. Additionally, Robinson seeks leave to file a motion for judgment on the pleadings and Harris seeks leave to supplement her response in opposition. Docket Nos. 58, 61. The parties all argue that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact in this case; the Court agrees. For the reasons stated below, summary judgment is granted in favor of Noxubee County and Betty Robinson and both motions for leave are denied.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         The following facts are from the complaint, pleadings on summary judgment, and the parties' proposed pre-trial order presented to the Court ahead of the September 25, 2018 pre-trial conference.

         For nearly 20 years, Harris was employed by Noxubee County serving as an appointed deputy in the office of the Tax Assessor & Collector. In December 2015, Robinson took over the elected position of Noxubee County Tax Assessor & Collector. On November 17, 2016, Robinson held a staff meeting and ordered all of the employees in the office to sign the following agreement:

Please be reminded that discussing any matters concerning the business or conduction of business of the Noxubee County Tax Assessor/Collector's Office is strictly prohibited. This includes but is not limited to employee and employer meetings. Failure to adhere is grounds for immediate termination.

         Harris refused to sign the agreement at the meeting. Robinson presented it to her again on January 23, 2017, and again Harris refused to sign. Robinson fired Harris immediately.

         After her termination, Harris filed for unemployment benefits with the Mississippi Department of Employment Security (“MDES”). After an initial denial and appeal, an ALJ for the MDES determined that Noxubee County and Robinson had not met their burden of “establish[ing] [Harris'] misconduct connected with the work by substantial, clear, and convincing evidence” and Harris was entitled to unemployment benefits.

         In April 2017, Harris filed the instant suit claiming a violation of her rights under the First Amendment by Noxubee County and Robinson. On June 1, 2018, the dispositive motion deadline, all three parties moved for summary judgment. On September 25, 2018, the parties met for a pre-trial conference before this Court. At the pre-trial conference, Harris' counsel asserted that Robinson was being sued in both her official and individual capacities. In response, Robinson retained her own counsel, apart from the representation provided by Noxubee County, and on September 28, 2018, she filed a motion for leave to file a motion for judgment on the pleadings as to the claims against her in her individual capacity. Harris responded in opposition to Robinson's motion, and additionally filed a motion for leave to supplement her response with exhibits. All the issues are fully briefed.

         II. Legal Standard

         Summary judgment is only appropriate “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “A dispute is only genuine if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Lloyd v. Birkman, 127 F.Supp.3d 725, 739 (W.D. Tex. 2015) (quotations and citations omitted). “On cross-motions for summary judgment, the court reviews each party's motion independently, viewing the evidence and inferences in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party.” Baylor Cty. Hosp. Dist. v. Burwell, 163 F.Supp.3d 372, 377 (N.D. Tex. 2016), aff'd sub nom., 850 F.3d 257 (5th Cir. 2017) (quotations and citations omitted).

         III. First Amendment Rights

         Harris raises claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 alleging violations of rights secured by the First Amendment of the United States Constitution; the Complaint did not particularize the type of First Amendment claim, but Harris' motion for summary judgment describes her claims under the doctrines of prior restraint and first amendment retaliation.

         The Supreme Court has long held that government employers “may impose restraints on the job-related speech of public employees that would be plainly unconstitutional if applied to the public at large.” United States v. Nat'l Treasury Employees Union, 513 U.S. 454, 465 (1995). However, those restraints are not applicable to speech from a citizen “upon a matter of public concern.” Connick v. Myers,461 U.S. 138, 147 (1983). When evaluating restraints on speech, the Court must balance “the interests of the [employee], as a citizen, in commenting upon matters of public concern and the interest of the State, as an employer, in promoting ...


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