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Ratzlaff v. Board of County Commissioners of Caddo County

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

February 11, 2019

KELLY RATZLAFF, Plaintiff,
v.
BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS OF CADDO COUNTY, OKLAHOMA, et al., Defendants.

          ORDER

          TIMOTHY D. DEGIUSTI UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Before the Court is Defendant Board of County Commissioners of Caddo County's Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint [Doc. No. 15], filed pursuant Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). The sole issue raised by the Motion is whether the Board of County Commissioners is a proper party in this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, in which Plaintiff claims that Defendant Edward Whitworth, the county assessor, terminated her employment in retaliation for an exercise of First Amendment rights. Plaintiff has filed a response [Doc. No. 16] in opposition to the Motion, and the Board has replied [Doc. No. 17]. Thus, the Motion is fully briefed and at issue.

         Factual and Procedural Background

         Plaintiff brings suit under § 1983 to recover damages for her alleged wrongful discharge from county employment in violation of the First Amendment. Plaintiff alleges that she was employed as a deputy assessor for Caddo County from May 2011 until April 2018, when Defendant Whitworth terminated her employment immediately after she made a filing with the county election board to run against him as a candidate for the office of Caddo County Assessor, which he held (and still holds). Plaintiff alleges that she was satisfactorily performing her job and there was no legitimate reason to discharge her. She also alleges Defendant Whitworth was a Caddo County official with final policymaking authority over her employment. See First Am. Compl. [Doc. No. 11] ¶ 16.

         The First Amended Complaint states facts to show that Defendants knew the termination of Plaintiff's employment in retaliation for campaign activities violated the First Amendment.[1] These facts include allegations that Defendant Whitworth had been discharged by the previous county assessor for similar reasons, brought a federal lawsuit, and obtained injunctive relief prohibiting the conduct. See Blackburn v. Crumm, No. CIV-91-10-A, Order (W.D. Okla. June 5, 1991). Plaintiff also alleges that Defendant Whitworth had previously discharged another deputy assessor for supporting his opponent in an election for the office of county assessor. Plaintiff alleges that these facts show that “Caddo County has adopted a pattern, practice, or custom of discharging subordinates who run for political office, engage in the freedom of speech, or exercise their right of political association.” See First Am. Compl. ¶ 23.

         Plaintiff does not contend the Board of County Commissioners or any of its members played a direct role in her termination. She does allege, however, that the Board has “statutory and supervisory responsibilities over all Caddo County officers and employees, including [Defendant] Whitworth and [Plaintiff]” and that it is responsible for “developing personnel policies for the Caddo County, ” appropriating funds for employees' salaries and training, and entertaining complaints or grievances of county employees that cannot be resolved within their departments. Id. ¶¶ 24-27. Plaintiff claims “the Board has failed to properly train, supervise, or discipline county officers or employees to protect Caddo County employees' constitutional rights . . . [d]espite having direct knowledge that Caddo County employees' First Amendment rights are at risk when Deputies support candidates other than their elected Officer.” Id. ¶¶ 28-29. According to Plaintiff, “[b]ecause of the Board's failures, [she] was discharge[d] in violation of her constitutional rights.” Id. ¶ 30.

         The Board's Motion

         The Board seeks dismissal on the ground “it is not the proper party to Plaintiff's claim” or lawsuit. See Mot. Dismiss at 1, 3. It asserts that Defendant Whitworth in his official capacity is the proper party to be sued and, because Plaintiff has included him in this action, the Board is unnecessary and should be dismissed. The Board further argues that the county assessor is an elected official with independent control over deputy assessors like Plaintiff, and that the Board has no authority over the county assessor's actions with regard to personnel matters in his office. The Board contends Plaintiff does not state a § 1983 claim against it because the First Amended Complaint contains “no sufficient allegation that the Board itself was involved in the Assessor's decision to terminate Plaintiff, nor that the Assessor delegated any policy-making authority to the Board with regard to the operation of the Assessor's office or to the actions of the Assessor's Office; nor is there any sufficient allegation otherwise affirmatively linking the Board to Plaintiff's allegations herein.” Id. at 6. In the Board's view, without factual allegations that permit “a plausible inference of the Board's direct involvement in the hiring, training, or discipline of the deputies working for the county assessor, the Board is not a proper party in a suit under § 1983.” See Reply Br. at 5.

         Standard of Decision

         “To survive a motion to dismiss [under Rule 12(b)(6)], 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) (quoting Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)); see Robbins v. Oklahoma, 519 F.3d 1242, 1247 (10th Cir. 2008). “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.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678. Determining whether a complaint states a plausible claim is a “context-specific task that requires the reviewing court to draw on its judicial experience and common sense.” See id. at 679; see also Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1248. It is particularly important in § 1983 cases for a complaint “to provide each [defendant] with fair notice as to the basis of the claims against him or her.” See Robbins, 519 F.3d at 1249-50 (emphasis omitted); see also Smith v. United States, 561 F.3d 1090, 1104 (10th Cir. 2009).

         When the defendant is a governmental entity, “the longstanding interpretation of § 1983's standards for imposing municipal liability” under Monell v. Department of Social Services, 436 U.S. 658, 691-92, 694 (1978), requires “that a plaintiff must identify a government's policy or custom that caused the injury” and “show that the policy was enacted or maintained with deliberate indifference to an almost inevitable constitutional injury.” See Schneider v. City of Grand Junction Police Dep't, 717 F.3d 760, 769 (10th Cir. 2013) (internal quotations omitted) (citing Bd. of Cty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 403 (1997), and City of Canton v. Harris, 489 U.S. 378, 389 (1989)). An official policy for § 1983 liability purposes may be “a formally promulgated policy, a well-settled custom or practice, a final decision by a municipal policymaker, or deliberately indifferent training or supervision.” Id. at 770; see Bryson v. City of Okla. City, 627 F.3d 784, 788 (10th Cir. 2010). “To establish the causation element, the challenged policy or practice must be closely related to the violation of the plaintiff's federally protected right.” Schneider, 717 F.3d at 770 (internal quotation omitted).

         Discussion

         Plaintiff asserts that the Board of County Commissioners is a proper defendant for her § 1983 retaliatory discharge action under two legal theories. First, although Defendant Whitworth was the decisionmaker who terminated her county employment, Oklahoma law by statute “requires that all suits prosecuted by or against a county be prosecuted in the name of the board of county commissioners of the county of interest.” Green Constr. Co. v. Okla. Cty., 50 P.2d 625, 627 (Okla. 1935); see Okla. Stat. tit. 19, § 4. Second, the Board allegedly maintained a policy of failing to train and supervise county officers and employees with respect to First Amendment rights and so allowed retaliatory discharges like hers to occur.

         I. Plaintiff's ยง 1983 Action Based on Defendant ...


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