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Cooper v. Northwest Rogers County Fire Protection District

United States District Court, N.D. Oklahoma

March 8, 2018

DEBRA M. COOPER, Plaintiff,
v.
NORTHWEST ROGERS COUNTY FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT, JAMES MATHEW SHOCKLEY, MEL W. DAINTY, and NORTHWEST PROFESSIONAL FIREFIGHTERS LOCAL No. 4057 Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CLAIRE V. EAGAN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court are defendant Northwest Professional Firefighters Local No. 4057's (Union) motion for summary judgment (Dkt. # 44), and defendants Northwest Rogers County Fire Protection District (District), James Mathew Shockley, and Mel W. Dainty's joint motion for summary judgment (Dkt. # 46).

         I.

         The following facts are undisputed for purposes of summary judgment: the District employed plaintiff, Debra M. Cooper, a female, as its sole administrative assistant from January 2012 through her termination in February 2017. Dkt. # 3-1, at 8. Plaintiff had a clerical job classification, and the fire chief supervised her. Id. at 26, 48. When plaintiff was terminated, Shockley was the District's fire chief. Id. at 7. At all times relevant to this action, Dainty was chairman of the District's five-person board of directors. Id. As fire chief, one of Shockley's duties is to recommend termination of employees. Dkt. # 47-1, at 1. And the board approves or denies the fire chief's recommendations upon majority vote. Id.; Dkt. # 47-2, at 1.

         In 2015, the District dismissed David Puckett, its former fire chief, for embezzlement. Dkt. # 47-1, at 2. Puckett had a firefighter job classification, and the board of directors supervised him. Id. In February 2017, the District dismissed Matt Marlin, a firefighter, for destruction of property. Id. Marlin had a firefighter job classification, and the shift captain supervised him. Id.

         Between the time plaintiff started working for the District and October 2016, the District's firefighters received a 3% pension increase. Dkt. # 47-3, at 41. Plaintiff was the District employee responsible for submitting retirement contribution information to the firefighters' pensions. Dkt. # 47-4, at 3. In October 2016, when she noticed that she had not received the same increase, she notified Shockley, who presented the issue to the board. Id. At its January 2017 meeting, the board approved the increased retirement benefit plaintiff sought, effective from October 2016. Dkt. # 47-5, at 9.

         During the course of her employment, plaintiff took over responsibility for payroll taxes for the District, and received a raise for taking on this responsibility. Dkt. # 47-3, at 43. In 2015, the District received a report from an independent auditor, stating that the “District's payroll tax and payroll liabilities accounts were not reconciled and required material adjusting journal entries at year end.” Dkt. # 47-7, at 3. On January 25, 2017, the District's certified public accountant emailed Shockley with a draft report for the 2016 audit. Dkt. # 47-6, at 2-3. The report stated, inter alia,

CONDITION: The District's payroll tax and payroll liabilities accounts were not reconciled and required material adjusting journal entries at year end. In addition, the District has not paid their [sic] Oklahoma withholding taxes in accordance with State law . . . . [...]
CAUSE OF CONDITION: The District's accounting staff lacks the necessary skill and knowledge to reconcile the account balances. [...]
RECOMMENDATION: The District should consider outsourcing its payroll functions to a qualified payroll processor.

Id. at 16. Upon receiving the draft report, in late January 2017, Shockley told Dainty that he felt it was “time to make a change and to get a new, more competent Administrative Assistant.” Dkt. # 47-1, at 2. On January 31, 2017, after hearing Shockley's recommendation, Dainty contacted an employment attorney to “discuss plaintiff's situation.” Dkt. # 47-2, at 1; Dkt. # 47-8.

         On February 7, 2017, the Union presented a grievance to Shockley, asking the District to rescind plaintiff's pension increase or provide the same increase to all firefighters. Dkt. # 47-1, at 1; Dkt. # 60-1. According to Shockley, he never submitted the grievance to the board, as plaintiff was terminated before the deadline for taking action on a Union grievance. Dkt. # 47-1, at 1-2.

         On February 13, 2017, the board met in executive session to discuss plaintiff's employment. Dkt. # 47-5, at 11. The board then returned to regular session and voted to terminate plaintiff “due to audit results.” Id.

         On April 26, 2017, plaintiff filed her petition in the District Court of Rogers County, State of Oklahoma, asserting the following claims: breach of contract against the District (count one); malicious interference with a contractual relationship against the Union (count two); a procedural due process claim under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (§ 1983) against the District, Dainty, and Shockley (count three); a gender discrimination claim under § 1983 against the District, Dainty, and Shockley (count four); a due process liberty interest claim under § 1983 against Dainty and Shockley (count five); malicious interference with a contractual relationship against Dainty and Shockley (count six); intentional infliction of emotional distress against Dainty and Shockley (count seven); and a request for declaratory relief and permanent injunction against the District pursuant to the Oklahoma Open Meeting Act, Okla. Stat. tit. 25, § 301 et seq. (OOMA) (count ...


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