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West v. City of Holly Springs

United States District Court, N.D. Mississippi, Oxford Division

May 28, 2019

BOBBY WEST, COYA JACKSON, DIANECHIA PATTERSON, MICHAEL PERKINS, FILANDO MARION, JANET F. POWER, AND DANIEL GREEN PLAINTIFFS
v.
CITY OF HOLLY SPRINGS, MISSISSIPPI, KELVIN O. BUCK, Mayor of the City of Holly Springs, and JOHN DOES 1-5 DEFENDANTS

          ORDER

          MICHAEL P. MILLS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         This cause comes before the court on defendant City of Holly Springs' motions for summary judgment as to the FLSA retaliation claims asserted by plaintiffs Michael Perkins and Coya Jackson, as well as certain other claims which remain outstanding in this case. Plaintiffs have responded in opposition to the motions, and this court, having considered the memoranda and submissions of the parties, is prepared to rule.

         In its prior order dismissing the FLSA wage claims asserted by each of the plaintiffs in this case, this court noted that it would address the retaliation claims asserted by Perkins and Jackson in a separate order. As discussed below, this court concludes that triable fact issues exist regarding the retaliation claims asserted by each of these plaintiffs. Before discussing the facts relevant to their claims, this court will make some observations applicable to them both. In its briefing, defendant makes certain concessions as to Perkins' and Jackson's retaliation claims which serve to significantly limit the scope of this court's inquiry on summary judgment. Specifically, defendant concedes that each of these plaintiffs engaged in protected activity under the FLSA, and it further concedes that they each received certain punishments which constitute adverse employment actions.

         In light of defendants' concessions, the sole issue for this court's resolution comes down to the issue of motive, in particular whether the adverse employment actions in this case were intended to punish plaintiffs for filing this lawsuit. It should be apparent, however, that the issue of what motivated a particular party to take a particular action is not one which lends itself easily to resolution on summary judgment. Indeed, the issue of motive is one which often comes down to evaluations regarding the credibility of witnesses, and this is a task which juries are uniquely well suited to perform. Moreover, the fact that this court agreed with defendant that it did not violate the FLSA's wage provisions is quite irrelevant for the purposes of plaintiffs' retaliation claims. In this court's experience, rather weak cases of discrimination often give rise to potentially strong claims of retaliation, since many employers react quite negatively to being accused of something that they did not do. As discussed in this court's prior order, plaintiffs now concede that they were actually overpaid in this case, and, under these circumstances, it would, perhaps, be understandable if defendant felt that the filing of this lawsuit evidences a certain lack of gratitude on their part.

         However understandable any offense felt by defendant over this lawsuit might have been, this does not render any acts of retaliation resulting from that offense any more lawful. Under the FLSA, the proper forum for resolving any meritless claims is in court, and it is clearly unlawful for an employer to allow any anger it might feel over a lawsuit to result in acts of retaliation. That brings this court to another fact supporting plaintiffs' retaliation claims, namely the surprisingly high rate at which the plaintiffs in this case incurred acts of alleged retaliation. It is undisputed that three of the seven FLSA plaintiffs in this case sustained “materially adverse” actions after the filing of this lawsuit, and this strikes this court as representing a quite high rate of such actions.

         It should be emphasized that defendant has not even sought summary judgment as to the retaliation claims asserted by plaintiff Michael West, who, the complaint alleges, was demoted from detective to patrolman without explanation, lost the use of a take-home vehicle available only to detectives, and was advised that he should resign shortly after filing this lawsuit. [Third Amended Complaint at 8]. By not seeking summary judgment as to West's retaliation claims, defendant tacitly concedes that triable jury issues exist regarding whether retaliation for filing this lawsuit was the “but for” cause of his termination. If a jury were to conclude that defendant had a retaliatory mindset against West based on his filing of this lawsuit, then it would, in all likelihood, be more willing to accept that it had a similar mindset vis a vis his co-plaintiffs Perkins and Jackson. Thus, while the claims asserted by West are not directly discussed in this order, this court believes that they offer indirect support for the claims asserted by his co-plaintiffs.

         With the foregoing considerations in mind, this court now turns to the law applicable to the retaliation claims asserted by Jackson and Perkins. The anti-retaliation provision of the FLSA makes it unlawful “to discharge or…discriminate against any employee because such employee has filed any complaint.” 29 U.S.C. § 215(a)(3). A retaliation claim under the FLSA is subject to the McDonnell Douglas burden-shifting framework. Lasater v. Tex. A&M Univ. Commerce, 495 Fed.Appx. 458, 461 (5th Cir. 2012). To establish a prima facie retaliation claim under the FLSA, a plaintiff must make a showing of: (1) participation in a protected activity under the FLSA; (2) an adverse employment action; and (3) a causal link between the activity and the adverse action.” Id.

         If the plaintiff is successful in making this prima facie showing, then the defendant must articulate a legitimate, nonretaliatory reason for the adverse employment action. Id. After the defendant presents a legitimate nonretaliatory reason for the adverse employment action, the burden shifts back to the plaintiff to show that the defendants' proffered reason is pretextual. Id. As it relates to the final burden, the U.S. Supreme Court has held that in retaliation cases, the employee must prove that the “adverse employment action would not have occurred ‘but for' plaintiff's protected activity.” Univ. of Tex. Sw. Med. Ctr. v. Nassar, 570 U.S. 338, 340 (2013).

         With the foregoing authority in mind, this court considers first defendant's summary judgment motion as to plaintiff Cora Jackson's retaliation claim. This claim, and Jackson's related state-law claim for malicious prosecution, is based on his 2017 prosecution for disturbing the peace. This criminal charge arose out of a July 27, 2017, incident in which Jackson went to City Hall to demand his last paycheck after he accepted a job at a different law enforcement agency. In its brief, defendant describes the facts surrounding this prosecution as follows:

Jackson left the Department in the summer of 2017 to work for the Marshall County Sheriff's Department. On July 21st, Jackson went to City Hall to pick up his final paycheck, which contained any vacation and sick time he accumulated while with the Department. Although Jones was in plain clothes, he had his Glock .40 on his side when he entered City Hall. Jones informed Jackson that she could not process his paycheck because it first had to be approved by Chief Harris, who was out of town at the time. However, Jackson insisted that Jones call Chief Harris and have him approve it over the telephone. He also suggested that she look in the system to see how much he was owed, but she again informed him that she would need Chief Harris' approval. Jones went and spoke with her supervisor, Belinda. Upon her return, Jones tried to explain to Jackson again that because Chief Harris was out of town she could not process his paycheck. Jackson told Jones that her refusal to give him his check was “unacceptable.”
At some point, Captain Bowens showed up and asked Jackson to leave because he was disturbing the peace. Captain Bowens also informed Jackson that he would be arrested if he did not leave. Jackson responded “who's going to arrest me.” Shortly afterwards, Mayor Buck came out and informed Jackson that he would get his paycheck when Chief Harris returned. Mayor Buck also asked Jackson to leave. However, Jackson told them that he was not going anywhere until he received an explanation about his paycheck. Jackson then called his Commander at Marshall County, Gary Byrd, and told him they were refusing to give him his paycheck and that they were going to arrest him if he did not leave. It was not until Byrd instructed Jackson to leave that he left City Hall.
On July 21, 2017, Mayor Buck wrote a letter to the Department about the incident and asked them to charge Jackson with the appropriate legal charge. Captain Bowens filed an affidavit seeking a charge against Jackson for disturbance in a public place. The charge was initially filed in Municipal Court, but transferred was to Circuit Court. * * * The Circuit Court ultimately dismissed the charge at the probable cause hearing.

[Defendant's brief at 3-5 (record citations omitted)].

         For his part, plaintiff asserts in his brief that:

Jackson testified that during the incident, he did not raise his voice, nor was he belligerent to either Captain Bower or Ms. Jones. Jackson never refused to leave the premises and left after being asked to do so by Captain Bowen. It was later discovered that Jackson's paycheck had previously been processed and was ready for pickup at the time Jackson arrived at City Hall. It was ...

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