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McKee v. Reuter

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

September 5, 2017

JEANETTE MCKEE, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MICHAEL REUTER, et al., Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          CATHERINE D. PERRY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The three plaintiffs in this case, Jeanette McKee, Susan Hickman and Sharon Rebecca Hickman (referred to as “Beckie”) are past Deputy Clerk employees of the Circuit Court of Jefferson County. Defendant Michael Reuter is the elected Clerk of Court, who defeated plaintiff McKee in a partisan election in 2014. Plaintiffs Susan and Beckie supported McKee in the election.

         Plaintiffs have sued Michael Reuter and others under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. They allege that after Reuter won the 2014 election, he and the other individual defendants conspired to force plaintiffs out of their jobs because of their political affiliations and because of issues they raised during the election. McKee and Beckie Hickman were both terminated by Reuter and then reinstated by a judicial review committee before they eventually resigned. Susan Hickman retired from her position. In addition to Reuter, plaintiffs' claims are brought against Christy Scrivner, who Reuter appointed to replace McKee as Chief Deputy Clerk. Plaintiff Beckie Hickman is also suing her direct supervisor, Teresa Cusick.

         Now pending before me is defendants' motion for summary judgment on all claims. Defendants argue they are entitled to qualified immunity. As a separate but additional basis for summary judgment, Reuter argues that he was justified in discharging McKee and Beckie. As for Susan who retired from the Clerk's office, defendants argue that her constructive discharge claim fails because she never brought her complaints to the attention of her employers.

         Susan admits that she did not complain to Reuter and Scrivner about her working conditions. Because defendants were never provided a reasonable opportunity to work out her problems before she retired, Susan suffered no adverse employment action and her constructive discharge claim fails. As to Beckie's claims against Teresa Cusick and Christy Scrivner, the facts are insufficient to demonstrate a violation of a constitutional right. Cusick and Scrivner are therefore entitled to the defense of qualified immunity as to these claims. However, McKee's claims against both Scrivner and Reuter, and Beckie's claim against Reuter, demonstrate genuine disputes of material fact that are factual sufficient to show a violation of right. Therefore, I will deny summary judgment as to these claims.

         Motion for Leave to Supplement

         After defendants' motion for summary judgment was completely briefed, plaintiffs filed a verified motion for leave to supplement the record in opposition to summary judgment. Plaintiffs seek to include in the summary judgment record the decisions of the three-judge panels which reinstated plaintiffs McKee and Beckie after their terminations by Reuter. ECF No. 74. Defendants oppose the motion, arguing that the documents are unauthenticated, hearsay opinions that the plaintiffs have never before produced or relied upon. ECF No. 75.

         Plaintiffs' opposition to summary judgment and their response to defendants' statement of facts repeatedly discuss their reinstatements by a judicial review committee. Defendants cannot argue that they were unaware of these documents given that they are employment records provided to them at the time of plaintiffs' reinstatements. I will grant plaintiffs' motion for leave. I will consider the decisions of the Review Committees - not for the truth of the facts that they contain or as proof that the terminations were wrong - but as evidence of the fact that a judicial review committee overturned plaintiffs' terminations and reinstated them.

         Summary Judgment Standard

         The standards for summary judgment are well settled. In determining whether to grant a motion for summary judgment, the court views the facts - and any inferences from those facts - in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587 (1986). The movant bears the burden of establishing that (1) it is entitled to judgment as a matter of law and (2) there are no genuine issues of material fact. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a); Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). Once the movant has met this burden, however, the non-moving party may not rest on the allegations in its pleadings but must, by affidavit and other evidence, set forth specific facts showing that a genuine issue of material fact exists. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e). Where a factual record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, there is no genuine issue for trial. Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587. At the summary judgment stage, I will not weigh the evidence and decide the truth of the matter, but rather I need only determine if there is a genuine issue for trial. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 249 (1986).

         Background[1]

         In 2014, the three plaintiffs were clerks at the Jefferson County Circuit Clerk's office. McKee was the Chief Deputy Clerk - the highest ranking and paid deputy clerk - working for elected Clerk of Court Howard Wagner. After Wagner announced his intent to retire, McKee began her campaign in March 2014 to be the next elected Clerk of Court. McKee ran unopposed in the primary as the Democratic nominee, and her opponent in the general election was defendant Michael Reuter, the Republican nominee. During a “meet the candidates” public campaign event, McKee commented about Reuter's being accused of domestic violence in his past.[2] Almost all the deputy clerks in the Circuit Clerk's office, including Susan and Beckie, supported McKee in her campaign. McKee lost the election in November 2014, and Reuter started as the new Clerk of Court on January 2, 2015.

         I. Count I: Jeanette McKee

         Plaintiff Jeanette McKee started working for the clerk's office in 1989 and became Chief Deputy Clerk in 1998. On Reuter's first day as Clerk of Court, before McKee had even taken her coat off, he told her to move out of the semi-private office that she shared with Susan Hickman, and to a cubicle outside of his office. When McKee asked him about her duties under his new management, Reuter told her she would still be the Chief. However, on his second day in office, Reuter held a meeting for deputy court clerks where he introduced defendant Christy Scrivner as the new Chief Deputy Clerk. Immediately following the general clerks meeting, Reuter met with just the supervisors. Despite being a clerk and a supervisor, Reuter told McKee that she was “not allowed” and “not needed” at the meetings because “nothing pertained” to her. The following day Reuter humiliated McKee when he publicly requested her parking pass and all office keys because she was no longer the Chief. Around this same time, Reuter had two cameras installed in the office which he used for the following six months. ECF Nos. 71-4 at 152, 154-61; 71-1 at 34, 26-33; 67-1 at 87.

         After replacing her as Chief, Reuter told McKee to help train Scrivner in her new position. Three days later, McKee went on medical leave until early February. When she returned, Reuter gave her a notice of Corrective Action, reprimanding her for refusing to help Scrivner on two occasions before her medical leave, in violation of his direct order. McKee denied refusing to help Scrivner and appealed the notice. Reuter assigned McKee to a microfilming position - a position that did not previously exist - as punishment. After review of the notice of Corrective Action by an outside fact finder, [3] Reuter withdrew the reprimand in late February but did not move McKee out of microfilming until the following week. ECF Nos. 71-4 at 116-117, 168, 170, 179; 67-4.

         On April 2, 2015, McKee exchanged words in a disagreement with one or two nonparty employees in the office. Six days later Reuter dismissed McKee and had her escorted out of the building. Around this time, Scrivner wrote the word “Karma” on the board outside her office. McKee appealed her termination to the presiding judge and a three-judge panel was appointed to review the decision. The Review Committee held a hearing where both Reuter and Scrivner testified against McKee. The Committee found McKee's termination unreasonable and ordered her reinstatement on June 11, 2015. ECF Nos. 71-4 at 104-11, 176-79; 71-6 at 90-91.

         Upon reinstatement, Reuter assigned McKee to a position in the traffic division on the first floor of the building, with duties considerably below her qualifications. Defendant traffic supervisor Teresa Cusick told McKee that Reuter said she could not go to the second floor, where the main clerk's office was located. Other clerks in the office told McKee that they felt Reuter did not want them to talk to her. McKee resigned from her position soon after reinstatement. ECF No. 71-4 at 75-76, 179.

         II. Count II: Susan Hickman

         When Reuter started as Clerk of Court, plaintiff Susan Hickman had been working in the clerk's office for more than twenty-five years. Susan supported McKee in her election campaign, shared an office space with her, and attended McKee's appeal of termination hearing to provide moral support. After Reuter started as Clerk of Court, he and Scrivner transferred Susan to several different positions - she was a “floater” throughout the office - and her duties changed “constantly.” Although Susan maintained her ...


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