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Smith v. Meridian-Lauderdale County Public Library

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

February 5, 2019




         The Meridian-Lauderdale Public Library hired Sharon Smith to manage its public relations. Within three months, Smith was fired. She brought this suit challenging her termination. Now before the Court are defendants' motion to dismiss and Smith's motion for judgment on the pleadings.

         I. Factual and Procedural History

         The following facts from Smith's complaint are undisputed. See generally Docket Nos. 38, 44. As established by state law, the library is managed by a board of trustees, who have the authority to hire a director to oversee the daily operations of the library.

         When Smith was hired in late October 2016, she received an employee handbook that stated all library employees are at-will employees and that she would be a probationary employee during her first six months of employment. On January 4, 2017, the library's director, Barbara Gough, wrote Smith a “notice of corrective action” for not vacuuming the floor of the library after being asked to do so. Docket No. 38-2. This notice warned Smith that she would be monitored for 30 days to ensure the “infraction [was] corrected.” Id. Smith wrote to the library's board of trustees (the “board”) and asked for a hearing regarding the notice. Counsel for the board denied Smith's request for a hearing and stated that the board only had the authority to hear employee grievances when an employee had been terminated by the director “for cause.” Docket No. 38-3.

         On February 8, 2017, Smith was fired; she was told her termination was without cause and she was reminded she had only been a probationary employee. On February 17, 2017, Smith appealed her termination to the board. At the next board meeting, board member Wanda DeLee made a motion to deny Smith a hearing, which passed by a unanimous vote.

         Smith then filed suit against the library, Gough, and DeLee. Her complaint lists her causes of action: wrongful termination in violation of Mississippi Code § 39-3-17; a violation of Mississippi's constitutional guarantee of procedural due process; a violation of the U.S. Constitution's guarantee of procedural and substantive due process; a claim that the library's employee handbook has a chilling effect on constitutional rights; and a § 1983 Monell claim.[1] The present motions followed.[2]

         II. Legal Standard

         Rule 12(b)(6) authorizes dismissal of actions that fail to state a claim upon which relief may be granted. To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, “a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quotation marks and citation omitted). “A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id.

         When considering a motion to dismiss, the Court accepts the plaintiff's factual allegations as true and makes reasonable inferences in the plaintiff's favor. Id. “Documents that a defendant attaches to a motion to dismiss are considered part of the pleadings if they are referred to in the plaintiff's complaint and are central to her claim.” Causey v. Sewell Cadillac-Chevrolet, Inc., 394 F.3d 285, 288 (5th Cir. 2004) (citation omitted).

         The same standard applies to motions for judgment on the pleadings. See Guidry v. Am. Pub. Life Ins. Co., 512 F.3d 177, 180 (5th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted). “A motion brought pursuant to Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(c) is designed to dispose of cases where the material facts are not in dispute and a judgment on the merits can be rendered by looking to the substance of the pleadings and any judicially noticed facts.” Hebert Abstract Co. v. Touchstone Props., Ltd., 914 F.2d 74, 76 (5th Cir. 1990).

         III. Discussion

         Smith has alleged federal constitutional claims and state law causes of action. Before evaluating the substance of Smith's claims, a few points of clarification are in order.

         First, in addition to pleading the due process claims, Smith lists a § 1983 Monell claim as a separate cause of action. It is not. Section 1983 and the due process claims are one and the same; Section 1983 is the avenue by which Smith may bring her federal due process claims. See Cinel v. Connick, 15 F.3d 1338, 1342 (5th Cir. 1994).

         Second, the handbook may be evidence of a type of § 1983 violation but it is not its own cause of action, like a breach of contract claim.[3] See Monell v. Dep't of Soc. Servs. of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658, 690 (1978) (“Local governing bodies, therefore, can be sued directly under § 1983 for monetary, declaratory, or injunctive relief where, as here, the action that is alleged to be unconstitutional implements or executes a policy statement, ordinance, regulation, or decision officially adopted and promulgated by that body's officers.”).

         Finally, Mississippi's constitutional guarantee of due process is identical to that of the federal constitution. See Miss. Const. Art. 3, § 14. “Two claims are duplicative of one another if they arise from the same facts and do not allege distinct damages.” O'Quain v. Shell Offshore, Inc., No. 2:12-CV-01693, 2013 WL 149467, at *4 (E.D. La. Jan. 14, 2013) (citing Conway v. Icahn & Co., 16 F.3d 504, 511 (2d Cir. 1994)). For these reasons, the Mississippi procedural due process claim is subsumed within the federal due process claim.

         The Court now turns to the merits of Smith's due process claims.

         A. Due Process

         i. ...

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