The opinion of the court was delivered by: Nanette K. Laughrey United States District Judge
Dwight Pfeiffer, his spouse, Robin Pfeiffer, and his step-daughter, Jennifer Tice (collectively, "Plaintiffs") were employed by the Cooper County Sheriff's Department until they were dismissed on January 1, 2009, by then-newly elected sheriff, Jerry Wolfe ("Wolfe"). Plaintiffs now sue for wrongful termination under 28 U.S.C. § 1983, asserting that Wolfe terminated their employment due to their engagement in political speech activities and thus violated their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights. Pending before the Court is Wolfe's Motion for Summary Judgment. [Doc. # 21]. For the following reasons, Wolfe's motion is GRANTED in part and DENIED in part.
I. Factual Background*fn1
Plaintiffs were each employed by the Cooper County Sheriff's Department until December 31, 2008. Dwight Pfeiffer ("Dwight") held the position of road deputy; Robin Pfeiffer ("Robin") held the position of reserve deputy; and Jennifer Tice ("Jennifer") held the position of detention officer. The Plaintiffs are related to each other: Dwight and Robin are married, and Jennifer is Robin's daughter. Defendant Jerry Wolfe's employment at the Sheriff's Department began in 1994. At that time, Dwight was already an employee of the Sheriff's Department.
In 2008, Dwight was a candidate for Cooper County Sheriff and Robin was a candidate for Public Administrator. Jennifer provided support to the campaigns of both Dwight and Robin. Specifically, Jennifer was listed on Dwight's campaign brochures as the treasurer of "Pfeiffer for Sheriff." Jennifer also printed copies of campaign literature for both Dwight's and Robin's campaigns. Wolfe also ran for Cooper County Sheriff in 2008. Wolfe hoped that if he won, Dwight would voluntarily leave the Sheriff's Department.
In mid-July 2008, Wolfe discovered that the printing equipment at the Sheriff's Department was used to print copies of campaign literature when he replaced a printer's ink cartridge approximately one week after he previously replaced it. Upon replacing the cartridge, the printer resumed operation and printed a partial "Pfeiffer for Sheriff" brochure. Wolfe reported the incident and handed the flier to then-Sheriff Paul Milne. Upon looking into the computer's "event viewer" to review prior print jobs, Wolfe found several print jobs named "sheriff brochure doc" and "public administrator brochure doc." The only candidate running for the office of public administrator who had access to the Sheriff's office was Robin Pfeiffer. By checking the computer's "event viewer" again, print jobs of "sheriff brochure doc" and "public administrator doc" amounted to 2,403 printed documents. Wolfe reported his findings to then-Sheriff Paul Milne, as the Sheriff makes all disciplinary decisions. [Doc. # 22-3, at 12 (103:3-9)].
Jennifer stated that she used the Sheriff's Department computer and printer to print campaign literature for both Dwight's and Robin's campaigns. Dwight was not initially aware that Jennifer used the Sheriff's Department's resources for printing the first batch of his brochures, but was aware of her use of the Department's equipment for subsequent printings. Robin discussed with Jennifer about using the Sheriff's Department equipment to print campaign materials and admits that she probably pushed Jennifer to do it. Neither Robin or Dwight reported Jennifer's use of the Department's equipment to print campaign materials. Neither Robin or Dwight reimbursed or offered to reimburse the Department.
Wolfe won the election for Sheriff. On or about December 29, 2008, Plaintiffs each received a letter from Wolfe, terminating their employment as of midnight on December 31, 2008. The reasons listed in the letters for their dismissal were: "Modification of staffing arrangements[;] Your services are no longer required." [Doc. # 25-1, at 2, 4, 6]. Robin's letter also included the reason "Downsizing of Reserve Unit." [Doc. # 25-1, at 4]. Plaintiffs were the only employees terminated by Wolfe at that time. In documents sent to the Missouri Department of Public Safety ("MDPS"), Wolfe stated "[s]ervices no longer needed," as the reason for Dwight's and Robin's dismissal. [Docs. # 25-1, at 10, 14].
Wolfe testified that he terminated Plaintiffs based on reasons that arose since the end of 2007; namely, that he did not trust Plaintiffs. According to Wolfe, "trust is everything and you have to have people that are trustworthy, because they may be the one that's keeping somebody from putting a bullet through your head. That was a huge concern for me." [Doc. # 22-3, at 8 (79:16-19)]. He testified that because Jennifer took care of the finances of Dwight's campaign, and because the Plaintiffs all lived within close proximity of each other, it was highly unlikely that all three were not aware that copies of their campaign materials were printed at the Sheriff's Department for their personal gain. Wolfe specifically stated that his main trust issue with Dwight and Jennifer stemmed from the campaign literature copies made at the expense of the Sheriff's Department.
As to Robin, Wolfe testified that in addition to the campaign materials copying issue, he believed that Robin was falsifying her mileage reports that she submitted for reimbursement. As a reserve officer, Robin generally worked one regular shift per month, and worked a flexible schedule for the remainder of the month, with hours left to her discretion. Because she used her own vehicle for road patrols, the Sheriff's Department reimbursed her for mileage. Wolfe saw the mileage reports for December 2007 and March 2008 close to when they were turned in because they were laying on the office manager's desk. [Doc. # 25-1, at 26 (53:16-18)]. Based on his knowledge that other Cooper County officers, highway patrol officers, and city marshals from other towns "weren't seeing" Robin or her patrol vehicle, and that the only other reserve officer who also used his own vehicle and worked just one scheduled shift per month was seen conducting building checks and road patrol by other officers, Wolfe testified that he thought that Robin's mileage sheets were problematic. [Doc. # 25-1, at 27 (54:25-55:11), 29 (77:2-7)]. Prior to dismissing Robin, Wolfe asked dispatch how many radio entries existed for Robin's shifts between the beginning of 2007 and the end of 2008, and was informed that there were "very minimal entries." [Doc. # 25-1, at 30 (78:2-4)]. However, prior to firing her, Wolfe was unaware of any incidents where Robin was scheduled to work where she was not able to be reached by radio, nor did he personally review radio log records prior to dismissing Robin. Wolfe admits that Robin was not expected to handle calls unless the Department was short handed and that she would sometimes call in to the Department using her cell phone, which may not have always been recorded on the Department's radio logs.
Wolfe also testified that news of a dispute, which he learned through two sources, between then-Sheriff Milne and Dwight also played a part in his decision to terminate Plaintiffs. Around August 2008, Captain Barbara Allphin, the jail administrator, informed Wolfe that there had been a "blow out" between then-Sheriff Milne and Dwight. The argument concerned comments allegedly made by Jennifer during work hours that Dwight was going to "clean house" and fire a number of employees if he were elected, which was brought to Sheriff Milne's attention by Captain Allphin. This was the second occasion that such comments were brought to Sheriff Milne's attention. After learning of the first incident, Sheriff Milne instructed Captain Allphin to tell Jennifer to stop making those comments. Upon the second occasion, Sheriff Milne confronted Jennifer about the alleged comments and she denied making them. Sheriff Milne then told Dwight about Captain Allphin's report of Jennifer's comments. Dwight responded by stating that Sheriff Milne was lying, called Captain Allphin a "bitch," and that the only employee he was going to fire was Captain Allphin. Wolfe also heard about the incident from Rosemary Kraus, an office administrator who had overheard the altercation between Dwight and Sheriff Milne. She had interjected in the fight when Dwight said of her daughter, "F'g bitch is lying," after Sheriff Milne told Dwight that Kraus's daughter heard Jennifer's statements. [Doc. # 22-4, at 3 (30:6)]. Later, around August 7, 2008, Dwight authored and sent an email to a number of jail employees, including Wolfe, denying the rumor that he planned to terminate jail employees should he be elected sheriff, or made statements to that effect.
Then-Sheriff Milne testified that he "was going to fire [Dwight]" after Dwight called Sheriff Milne a liar, but he decided against it because he thought "it'd be political." [Doc. # 25-1, at 43 (35:9-10), 44 (38:23-25)]. Sheriff Milne also testified that as of December 31, 2008, there was nothing that Plaintiffs had done in their job duties for which he would have fired them. [Doc. # 25-1, at 47 (50:9-14)]. Specifically, Sheriff Milne testified that he did not think that the copying issue was severe enough that it required Dwight to be fired. [Doc. # 25-1, at 44 (38:10-16)].
Dwight believes he was discharged because he ran against Wolfe for Sheriff. Robin believes that she was terminated because she ran as a Democrat and because her husband ran against Wolfe. Robin adds that she heard a statement by an unidentified store clerk that Wolfe told people that he would fire the Pfeiffers if he won. Jennifer believes she was terminated because of Dwight's campaign for Sheriff. Based on these beliefs, ...