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Walker v. Smith

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

April 23, 2019




         Plaintiff Gail Walker says her former employer, Hinds County, Mississippi, District Attorney Robert Schuler Smith, terminated her employment because she exercised her First Amendment right to free speech. That claim is now before the Court under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, and for the following reasons, the Court concludes that Smith is entitled to qualified immunity.

         I. Background

         Smith hired Walker as an Assistant District Attorney (“ADA”) but terminated her employment in January 2014. Walker then sued Smith under eight legal theories, all but one of which were dismissed on summary judgment. See Feb. 5, 2019 Order [160]. The only remaining cause of action is Walker's First Amendment retaliation claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         According to Walker, Smith fired her, in part, because Walker exercised her right to free speech when she contacted the Mississippi Bureau of Investigation (“MBI”) to report an alleged computer hack within the district attorney's office. Unfortunately, Smith failed to address this claim in his motion for summary judgment. See Feb. 5, 2019 Order [160] at 18-20. But the Court expressed concern regarding its viability. Id. So, the Court reserved ruling and ordered Walker to “show cause why [it] should not find that she spoke as an employee” and explain why “Smith would not be entitled to qualified immunity under the circumstances.” Id. at 20. Walker briefed the issues, as did Smith, but she declined to file a reply. The briefing is therefore closed.

         II. Standards

         A. Summary Judgment

         Summary judgment is warranted under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56(a) when evidence reveals no genuine dispute regarding any material fact and that the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. The rule “mandates the entry of summary judgment, after adequate time for discovery and upon motion, against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986).

         The party moving for summary judgment “bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of [the record] which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of material fact.” Id. at 323. The nonmoving party must then “go beyond the pleadings” and “designate ‘specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'” Id. at 324 (citation omitted). In reviewing the evidence, factual controversies are to be resolved in favor of the nonmovant, “but only when . . . both parties have submitted evidence of contradictory facts.” Little v. Liquid Air Corp., 37 F.3d 1069, 1075 (5th Cir. 1994) (en banc). When such contradictory facts exist, the court may “not make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence.” Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150 (2000). Conclusory allegations, speculation, unsubstantiated assertions, and legalistic arguments have never constituted an adequate substitute for specific facts showing a genuine issue for trial. TIG Ins. Co. v. Sedgwick James of Wash., 276 F.3d 754, 759 (5th Cir. 2002); Little, 37 F.3d at 1075; SEC v. Recile, 10 F.3d 1093, 1097 (5th Cir. 1993).

         B. Qualified Immunity

         Smith asserted qualified immunity in his answer. See Def.'s Ans. to Am. Compl. [77] at 1. Walker therefore carries the burden “to demonstrate the inapplicability of the defense.” McClendon v. City of Columbia, 305 F.3d 314, 323 (5th Cir. 2002). As the Fifth Circuit has summarized:

[T]he doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil damages liability when their actions could reasonably have been believed to be legal. This immunity protects all but the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law. Accordingly, we do not deny immunity unless existing precedent must have placed the statutory or constitutional question beyond debate. The basic steps of this court's qualified-immunity inquiry are well-known: a plaintiff seeking to defeat qualified immunity must show: (1) that the official violated a statutory or constitutional right, and (2) that the right was clearly established at the time of the challenged conduct.

Anderson v. Valdez, 845 F.3d 580, 599-600 (5th Cir. 2016) (citation and quotation marks omitted, punctuation altered).

         “If the defendant's conduct did not violate [the] plaintiff's constitutional rights under the first prong, . . . he is entitled to qualified immunity.” Blackwell v. Laque, No. 07-30184, 2008 WL 1848119, at *2 (5th Cir. Apr. 24, 2008). But if it did, “the court then asks whether qualified immunity is still appropriate because the defendant's actions were ‘objectively reasonable' in light of ‘law which was clearly established at the time of the disputed action.'” Brown v. Callahan, 623 F.3d 249, 253 (5th Cir. 2010) (quoting Collins v. Ainsworth, 382 F.3d 529, 537 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         “It is important to emphasize that this inquiry ‘must be undertaken in light of the specific context of the case, not as a broad general proposition.'” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194, 198 (2004) (quoting Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194, 201 (2001)). “The dispositive question is whether the violative nature of particular conduct is clearly established.” Mullenix v. Luna, 136 S.Ct. 305, 308 (2015) (citation and quotation marks omitted). Thus, [t]he contours of the right must be sufficiently clear that a reasonable official would understand that what he is doing violates that right.” Anderson v. Creighton, 483 U.S. 635, 640 (1987).

         Finally, the Court may take these inquiries out of order and first consider whether the defendant violated clearly established law. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 242 (2009) (holding that courts may consider second ...

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