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Williams v. Tucker

United States District Court, E.D. Missouri, Northern Division

February 5, 2015

DONNA WILLIAMS, et al., Plaintiffs,
JUDGE FREDERICK TUCKER, et al., Defendants.


CATHERINE D. PERRY, District Judge.

This matter is before me on defendant Sheriff Kevin Shoemaker's motion to dismiss plaintiffs' amended complaint. Shoemaker argues that plaintiff Linda Jenkins has failed to properly state a First Amendment retaliation claim against him under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and that qualified immunity protects him from liability. After careful consideration, I conclude that plaintiff has pled facts sufficient to state a claim against Shoemaker, and it is not clear on the face of the complaint that Shoemaker is entitled to qualified immunity. Therefore, I will deny Shoemaker's motion to dismiss.

I. Motion to Dismiss Standard

The purpose of a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6) is to test the legal sufficiency of the complaint. When considering a 12(b)(6) motion, the court assumes the factual allegations of a complaint are true and construes them in favor of the plaintiff. Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319, 326-27 (1989).

Rule 8(a)(2), Fed. R. Civ. P., provides that a complaint must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." In Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, the Supreme Court clarified that Rule 8(a)(2) requires complaints to contain "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action." 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007); accord Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678-79 (2009). Specifically, to survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain enough factual allegations, accepted as true, to state a claim for relief "that is plausible on its face." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. The issue in considering such a motion is not whether the plaintiff will ultimately prevail, but whether the plaintiff is entitled to present evidence in support of the claim. See Neitzke, 490 U.S. at 327.

II. Background[1]

The plaintiffs' complaint alleges two counts. The first count contains allegations made only by plaintiff Donna Williams against Tucker, and the second count contains allegations made by Jenkins against Tucker and Shoemaker. I will discuss only the facts relevant to the claims against Shoemaker.

Jenkins has been employed by the Macon County Sheriff's Office as a bailiff for fifteen (15) years and as a sheriff's deputy for sixteen (16) years. During the events that serve as the basis for her claim, she was working as a bailiff in the courtroom of Judge Tucker. In 2012, Tucker ran for reelection as Circuit Judge of the 41st Judicial Circuit of Missouri and was reelected on November 6, 2012. Jenkins was a "known political supporter" of Tucker's opponent in the election.

After the election, Tucker told Jenkins he only wanted people who supported him working for him. Thereafter, at Tucker's direction, Shoemaker, who was the Macon County Sheriff, cut Jenkins' work hours. This had the effect of changing Jenkins' status from a full-time employee to a part-time employee and rendering her no longer eligible for employment benefits through the sheriff's office. Shoemaker also denied Jenkins "distribution of a state grant intended for supplementing the salary of all Missouri Sheriff's deputies." Jenkins avers that because she worked as a bailiff in Tucker's courtroom, Mo. Rev. Stat. § 478.240.2 gave Tucker the authority to order Shoemaker to change the terms and conditions of Jenkins' employment. She claims that Tucker and Shoemaker's actions were taken in retaliation for her support of Tucker's opponent in the circuit judge election and are therefore a violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

III. Discussion

Shoemaker argues that Jenkins' claims against him must be dismissed on two grounds. First, he claims he is entitled to qualified immunity from Jenkins' claim, because it is clear from the face of her complaint that he was acting in reliance upon Mo. Rev. Stat. § 478.240.2 and that he had an objectively reasonable belief that his actions were appropriate in light of the statute. Second, Shoemaker argues that Jenkins has failed to state a claim against him because her complaint is devoid of factual assertions establishing that her political speech was a substantial or motivating factor in Shoemaker's actions.

A. Qualified Immunity

Qualified immunity protects state officials from civil liability for actions that "[do] not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known." Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). In determining whether Shoemaker is entitled to qualified immunity, I must consider two questions: (1) whether the facts that Jenkins has alleged make out a violation of a constitutional right; and (2) whether the right at issue was clearly established' at the time of Shoemaker's alleged misconduct. See Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223 (2009); Shockency v. Ramsey County, 493 F.3d 941, 947-48 (8th Cir. 2007). "Qualified immunity is an affirmative defense, to be upheld in a motion to dismiss only when the immunity can be established on the face of the complaint." Bradford v. Huckabee, 330 F.3d 1038, 1041 (8th Cir. 2003). "Dismissal is inappropriate unless it appears beyond doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts in support of his claim which would entitle him to relief." Hafley v. Lohman, 90 F.3d 264, 266 (8th Cir. 1996).

Shoemaker's argument in support of qualified immunity centers on the existence of Missouri Revised Statute § 478.240.2, which grants the presiding judge of any circuit court in Missouri "general administrative authority over all judicial personnel and court officials in the circuit...." Mo. Rev. Stat. § 487.240.2. Shoemaker argues that the complaint asserts that he was acting entirely at the direction of Tucker when he reduced Jenkins' hours. He claims he is entitled to qualified immunity because, due to the statute, "[t]he contours of the right asserted by Plaintiff Jenkins were not sufficiently clear that Defendant Shoemaker would have known that he was violating Ms. Jenkins' rights." And "based upon the statute [he] ...

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