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Pinnell v. City of Gerald

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

March 21, 2018

ANGELA PINNELL, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF GERALD, MO, et al., Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          RODNEY W. SIPPEL UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Defendants, the City of Gerald (the “City”) and its current and former officers (Steve Goodwin, Stephen Grgurich, Ruth Haase, Annette Justus, Jason Risse, Hillary Ward, Keith Wehmeyer, Tom Wright), move for summary judgment against Plaintiff Angela Pinnell's First Amendment retaliation and conspiracy claims. Pinnell claims that she was terminated by the City's police department because she spoke out about grant money the police department wrongfully paid. The City defends its termination of Pinnell on the grounds that (1) Pinnell did not speak as a citizen on a matter of public concern, (2) the City did not have a retaliatory motive in firing her, and (3) its officers reached no agreement to deprive her of her First Amendment rights.

         I find that (1) Pinnell's speech was protected because in several instances she spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern. I also find that Pinnell has presented evidence sufficient to argue (2) that the city had a retaliatory motive in firing her and (3) that its officers reached an agreement to deprive her of her First Amendment Rights. As a result, I will deny defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         BACKGROUND

         Pinnell served as a police officer for the City of Gerald from October 2014 to September 2015. She worked for the police department without incident until she began to speak out on how state grant funds were being used by the department. (Justus Depo., 26:14-19; 28:8-29:18; 33:17-22, ECF Doc. No. 27-7.) Pinnell's concerns arose when she was paid overtime hours for work performed over the July 4th weekend in 2014. The City received a grant from the Missouri Department of Transportation (MODOT) to help pay officers for overtime hours worked during the holiday weekend. Pinnell says that she received this grant money, although she did not work overtime hours that weekend. (Pinnell's Depo., 22:1-24; 30:16-24, ECF Doc. No. 27-4.) Pinnell claims that Chief Goodwin altered her timecard so that it appeared that she worked overtime when in fact she had not. Id. at 87:6-11. Pinnell also claims that the other two persons who received grant money for overtime hours-Chief Goodwin and Officer Brenn Finley-also did not work overtime hours that weekend. Id. at 30:23-24.

         In the two weeks after the Fourth of July Weekend, Pinnell began to speak about these concerns to persons inside and outside of the City's police department. Pinnell says she first objected to Chief Goodwin, including when she saw her timecard for that weekend and when she received her paycheck with grant money: “Chief, I said, that's --- that's not right. That's, you know, I didn't work that.” (Complaint, ¶ 15, ECF Doc. No. 1; Pinnell Depo. 41:15 - 42:1.) Pinnell says that she next told her husband, former Chief of Police Tommie Lowe and former Lieutenant Chris Flora about her concerns. According to Pinnell, Tommie Lowe advised her on this instance and other occasions how she could go about addressing her concerns. (Pinnell Depo., 147:3 - 148:3; Affidavit of Plaintiff, ¶ 2, ECF Doc. No. 27-18.) Flora, in turn, advised her to speak to Alderwoman Annette Justus because she had helped him when he “was having issues.” (Pinnell Depo., 147:7 -11.)

         Pinnell says she was motivated to speak out to “make her end right” and because “because Defendant Goodwin misused taxpayer money through the grant” and that “wrong is wrong, and right is right, and there's no in betweens.” (Pinnell Depo., 48:19-21; 215:3-9; 251:10-252:3.) In total, Pinnell, Finley, and Goodwin received $400 of grant money, $113.67 of which was paid to Pinnell. (Suggestions in Support of Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment, ¶ 6, 10, ECF Doc. No. 22, hereinafter Suggestions in Support.) On Lieutenant Flora's advice, Pinnell says that she first spoke to Alderwoman Justus about her concerns on or around July 31st . (Pinnell Depo. 196:15-21.) Defendant Justus testified that hearing Pinnell's complaint prompted her to say to herself “oh, my gosh, this can't-we can't have this.” (Justus Depo., 33:17-34:5.) She said that she “started asking questions, ” and that she spoke with a Franklin County officer about the issue. Id.

         Through her conversations with Justus, Pinnell decided to repay the grant money she received by working six hours without pay. She documented this agreement by writing a letter that Justus signed, on August 6th, 2015. (Justus Depo. 46:7 - 47:2, ECF Doc. No. 23-4.) The letter explained I Angie Pinnell received four grant hours over the July 4th weekend which I never worked. I was scheduled that weekend to work nights. Chief informed me he added hours to my time card along with his own and [Officer Finley's] for overtime grant hours, which no grant hours was [sic] worked. In order for me to have a clear conscious [sic] I donated my firearms training and meeting hours for a total of six hours on August 4, 2015. (ECF Doc. No. 27-7.) Justus placed that letter in Pinnell's personnel file. (Justus Depo. 52:24 - 53:1.)

         After repaying the police department in this way, Pinnell continued to speak about the grant money. From August 1 through September 10, Pinnell says that she spoke with at least eleven additional persons about the grant money. These persons include then-Mayor Keith Wehmeyer, former mayor Otis Schulte, new Lieutenant Victor Brinkman, Franklin County Deputy Sheriff James Harden, [1] Franklin County Sheriff's Lieutenant Steve Pelton, and Tommie Lowe's wife, Jenny. Pinnell says she also spoke with residents of the area that she “knew from patrolling the town, ” including Michael Dean, Brad Landwehr, Roger Nelson, a resident of North Bernhardt Avenue, and a resident of Peartree Trailer Court. (Affidavit of Plaintiff, ¶ 2-6, ECF Doc. No. 27-18.) In defendant Justus's words, Pinnell told “everybody” and “anybody who would listen” about her complaints: “Roger Nelson, the people over at the service station, ” the “people at the store I work at…the J and L over here.” (Justus Depo. 124:24-125:16; 231:3-9.)

         During this time, August 1 to September 10, the City and its police department held three meetings to discuss personnel issues, including Pinnell's complaints. The first meeting was held on August 4th by the police department, with alderwoman Justus present. (Pinnell Depo. 51:19-21; 63:2-23.) Chief Goodwin testified that this meeting was originally scheduled so that officers could meet the new Lieutenant Brinkman. (Goodwin Depo., 43:10-21; 31:11-33:7, ECF Doc. No. 27-5.) After talking with Alderwoman Justus, however, Goodwin decided to discuss “chain of command” issues at the meeting as well. Id. at 43:10-21. At the meeting, Goodwin allegedly told his officers that “the next officer that goes over the top of my head will be wrote up and/or terminated.” (Goodwin Unemployment Hearing Depo., 17:17 - 18:2, ECF Doc. No. 27-28.) Justus testified that, when making this statement, Goodwin was referring to Pinnell. (Justus Depos., 87:4-88:7.), while officer Finley testified that the meeting itself was about Pinnell. (Finley Depo., 32:14-33:8, ECF Doc. No. 27-19.)

         One week later, on August 11th, the board of aldermen held a special executive council meeting with Pinnell. (Special/Executive Council Minutes, ECF Doc. No. 27-9.) Other meeting attendees included Chief Goodwin, Lieutenant Brinkman, Mayor Wehmeyer, City Clerk Jane Hungler, Alderpersons Hillary Ward, Jason Risse, Stephen Grgurich, and Justus and officers Finley, Flora, and Chris Sparks. Id. Justus testified that she called the August 11th Meeting for several reasons, “but mostly because [of] how [Pinnell] felt about going to firearms training.” (Justus Depo., 108:6 - 111:25.) On August 3rd, Pinnell told Justus about a conversation she had with her boyfriend's brother, Franklin County Deputy Sherriff James Harden. (Justus Depo., 54:12-22.) According to Pinnell, when she told Harden about her concerns with the grant money, Harden said that she should be careful: sometimes “accidents happen, especially with allegations out there like [Pinnell] had made against the chief.” (Exhibit 4, Plaintiff's Depo., 203:21-204:13.)

         Justus said she also called the August 11 meeting because of poor communication among staff and complaints that some officers had against Pinnell. (Justus Depo., 108:6 - 111:25.) Justus testified that she wanted the meeting “to be about everybody … where everybody voiced what they felt.” Id. at 108:6 - 111:25; 162:15-19. At the meeting, officers spoke about “time off requested, safety and harassment.” (Executive Council Minutes, p. 3, ECF Doc. No. 23-8.) Pinnell says she discussed her grant money concerns, stating that Chief Goodwin, himself, should not have been paid grant money because he was on a salary. (Pinnell Depo., 201:11-16.) According to Pinnell, after she discussed her concerns about the grant money issue, the “meeting moved away from the grant money and the officers began discussing the assignments of the cars.” (Suggestions in Support, ¶ 120, ECF Doc. No. 22.)

         Pinnell claims that the police department retaliated against her in three ways. She was assigned an older police car on July 31, 2015. (Pinnell Depo. 149:20 - 150:24.) She received her very first disciplinary write-up on August 19, 2015. Id. She claims that she was fired in retaliation for her complaints on September 10, 2015. Pinnell also claims that Lieutenant Brinkman launched an internal affairs investigation into her without her knowledge and without speaking to her. (Plaintiff's Statement of Controverted Material Facts, ¶ 199, Doc. No. 27.) She says that Goodwin brought several disciplinary write-ups against her to the September 10 meeting, only one of which she was aware of at the time. Id. at ¶ 195. On August 29, Pinnell received a disciplinary write-up for failing to complete the vehicle cover sheet in a report she prepared about a burglary and attempted rape. (Pinnell Depo. 100:1-24.)

         On September 10, the board of alderpersons voted to terminate Pinnell if she did not resign. No. explicit reason for Pinnell's termination was provided in her termination letter. (Plaintiff's Statement of Controverted Material Facts, ¶ 219.) In their separate testimony, the alderpersons provided varying reasons for the voting to terminate Pinnell. (Suggestions in Support ¶¶, 69-97.) Alderman Grgurich, for example, testified that he voted to terminate Pinnell because of several incidents, including “a dead cat incident, reports of her sleeping on duty, filing poor paperwork, putting the City's Crown Victoria in a ditch on a snowy day, and ‘confiscation of private property without due process.'” (Suggestions in Support, ¶ 75.)

         The alderpersons generally deny that they decided to terminate Pinnell before the meeting was held. (Suggestions in Support ¶¶, 69-97.) Several of them also deny having conferred with each other about Pinnell, or having knowledge of her grant money complaints before the September 10 meeting. (Suggestions in Support ¶¶, 74, 76, 79, 80.) Pinnell disputes these statements, pointing to separate testimony made by the alderpersons indicating that they had discussed her and were aware of the grant overtime issue before the meeting. (Plaintiff's Memorandum in Opposition, p. 19, ECF Doc. No. 25.)

         Pinnell says that she continued to talk about the grant money after she was fired, including to state officials. Pinnell testified that in late August or early September, she spoke with Franklin County Sherriff, Steve Pelton. (Pinnell Depo., 148:25-150:1.) She says she sought his advice on the grant money issue. Id. at 151:21-152:1. On his advice, Pinnell then contacted the Missouri Department of Public Safety. Id. at 152:4-19. She says she spoke to a Public Safety employee, Ed Chandler, before she was terminated. Id. at 255:4-22. On September 15th, after she was terminated, she had a telephone interview with the Missouri Department of Transportation's (MODOT) Division of Traffic Safety about the grant money issue. Id. at 152:4-19. As a result of Pinnell's inquiries, MODOT conducted an audit on the grant money received by the City. (MODOT Letter to Mayor Ward, December 30, 2016, ECF Doc. No. 27-1.) Based on the audit, MODOT required the City to return the entire grant allocation in a letter dated December 30, 2016. Id. The City later suspended Chief Goodwin ...


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