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Cramer v. Oklahoma County Board of County Commissioners

United States District Court, W.D. Oklahoma

May 1, 2019

ANGELA CRAMER et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
OKLAHOMA COUNTY BOARD OF COUNTY COMMISSIONERS et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER

          CHARLES B. GOODWIN UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Now before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 37) of Defendant David Hooten, seeking judgment on the 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claim asserted by Plaintiff Phillip Malone. Plaintiff Malone has filed a Response (Doc. No. 51), to which Defendant Hooten has replied (Doc. No. 59). Also before the Court is a Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. No. 36) filed by Defendant Board of County Commissioners of Oklahoma County (“Board”), to which Plaintiff Malone and the other plaintiffs in this action[1] have jointly responded (Doc. No. 49) and Defendant Board has replied (Doc. No. 60).

         I. Background

         The Court previously summarized the factual landscape of this lawsuit:

Each plaintiff was an at-will employee and [with the exception of Ms. Epps] had been hired by Carolyn Caudill, the former County Clerk for Oklahoma County, to work in the Oklahoma County Clerk's Office (“Clerk's Office”). Caudill was first elected in 1996; in March 2016, she announced she would seek a sixth term as County Clerk. The plaintiffs were volunteer workers for, and supporters of, Caudill's re-election campaign . . . .
[Defendant David Hooten] defeated Caudill in August 2016 in a runoff primary election and became the Republican Party candidate for County Clerk. In November 2016, he defeated Chris Powell in the general election and was sworn in as County Clerk on January 3, 2017.

         First Order of May 30, 2018 (Doc. No. 21) at 4-5 (footnote omitted). The plaintiffs in this action were terminated by Defendant Hooten in January and February 2017. Id. at 5; Am. Compl. (Doc. No. 15) ¶ 21; Answer (Doc. No. 24) ¶ 10.

         Plaintiff Malone and the other plaintiffs in this action claim that they were improperly terminated from their jobs as retaliation for the exercise of their right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment. Specifically, Plaintiff Malone alleges that shortly after Defendant Hooten took office, Hooten terminated Malone because he had supported Caudill and had volunteered for Caudill's campaign.

         II. Summary Judgment Standard

         Summary judgment is a means of testing in advance of trial whether the available evidence would permit a reasonable jury to find in favor of the party asserting a claim. The Court must grant summary judgment when “there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). “An issue is ‘genuine' if there is sufficient evidence on each side so that a rational trier of fact could resolve the issue either way.” Adler v. Wal-Mart Stores, Inc., 144 F.3d 664, 670 (10th Cir. 1998). “An issue of fact is ‘material' if under the substantive law it is essential to the proper disposition of the claim.” Id.

         A party that moves for summary judgment has the burden of showing that the undisputed material facts require judgment as a matter of law in its favor. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). If the movant carries this initial burden, the nonmovant must then “go beyond the pleadings and ‘set forth specific facts' that would be admissible in evidence in the event of trial from which a rational trier of fact could find for the nonmovant.” Adler, 144 F.3d at 671 (quoting prior version of Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e)); see also LCvR 56.1(c). The Court must then determine “whether the evidence presents a sufficient disagreement to require submission to a jury or whether it is so one-sided that one party must prevail as a matter of law.” Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 251-52 (1986). Parties may establish the existence or nonexistence of a material disputed fact by:

• citing to “depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations . . ., admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials” in the record; or
• demonstrating “that the materials cited do not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.”

Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1)(A)-(B). While the Court views the evidence and the inferences drawn from the record in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party, see Pepsi-Cola Bottling Co. of Pittsburg, Inc. v. PepsiCo, Inc., 431 F.3d 1241, 1255 (10th Cir. 2005), “[t]he mere existence of a scintilla of evidence in support of the [nonmovant's] position will be insufficient; there must be evidence on which the [trier of fact] could reasonably find for the [nonmovant].” Liberty Lobby, 477 U.S. at 252.

         III. Discussion

         A. Public Employee First Amendment Retaliation Claims

         As elements of a § 1983 claim, a plaintiff “must allege the violation of a right secured by the Constitution and laws of the United States” and “must show that the alleged deprivation was committed by a person acting under color of state law.” West v. Atkins, 487 U.S. 42, 48 (1988). Here, there is no question that Defendant Hooten acted under color of state law in terminating Clerk's Office employees. See id. at 49 (“[G]enerally, a public employee acts under color of state law . . . while exercising his responsibilities pursuant to state law.”). Defendant Hooten challenges whether Plaintiff can show that, in doing so, Hooten “‘subject[ed]” Plaintiff, “or cause[d] [Plaintiff] to be subjected, ” “to a deprivation of [his] lawful rights.” Porro v. Barnes, 624 F.3d 1322, 1327 (10th Cir. 2010) (internal quotation marks omitted).

         A government employee “does not relinquish First Amendment rights to comment on matters of public interest by virtue of government employment.” Connick v. Mvers, 461 U.S. 138, 140 (1983). “Rather, the First Amendment protects a public employee's right, in certain circumstances, to speak as a citizen addressing matters of public concern.” Garcetti v. Ceballos, 547 U.S. 410, 417 (2006). “However, the interests of public employees in commenting on matters of public concern must be balanced with the employer's interests in promoting the efficiency of the public ...


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