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Diggs v. City of St. Louis

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

March 6, 2019

MELVIN DIGGS, Plaintiff,
CITY OF ST. LOUIS, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court on a motion to dismiss filed by defendants City of St Louis, Adrian Barnes, Jeff Carson, Charlene Deeken, Dale Glass, and Tonya Harry (#6). For the reasons stated, the motion will be GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART. I. BACKGROUND Plaintiff Melvin Diggs is a former captain at the St. Louis Medium Security Institution (MSI). During his career, plaintiff served on a number of special task assignments including efforts to reduce jail violence and improve safety. Plaintiff explains that, throughout his career, he “regularly informed staff, supervisors, and others about the poor conditions of the jail and the danger it posed to the safety of inmates and corrections officers alike.” For example, he would complain about broken windows, lack of air conditioning, mold, rodent infestations, and the inadequate number of corrections officers serving on his shift. Plaintiff brought these complaints to his “supervisors, ” which apparently include the various defendants named in their individual capacities.

         In April 2017, plaintiff alleges he was warned by a co-worker that his supervisors were “targeting him.” Around that same time, plaintiff was involved in a “use-of-force incident” that required him to provide necessary paperwork to substantiate his use of force. Plaintiff explains that he provided this paperwork, but that he was nonetheless suspended for fifteen days for purportedly “failing to properly submit a document related to the use-of-force incident.” A grievance process followed in May 2017, whereby plaintiff indicated he believed he was being targeted due to his complaints about the poor conditions at MSI. In June 2017, plaintiff was “again cited … for a policy violation stemming from the [] use-o-force incident.” Under stress and having allegedly been diagnosed with depression, plaintiff “took some leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act” but was “wrongfully docked pay” as a result. On July 24, 2017, plaintiff returned from FMLA leave. He was terminated two days later. Defendant Glass, Commissioner of the Division of Corrections of the City of St. Louis, purportedly told others that plaintiff “threatened to shoot up the place” during a phone call between them, which plaintiff believes is the reason he was ultimately terminated under his employer's zero-tolerance workplace violence policy.

         Plaintiff has filed an eight-count complaint against defendants. Counts I and II allege a retaliation-based adverse employment action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 based on the First Amendment. Count III alleges a retaliation-based claim under the FMLA. Count IV alleges a failure-to-accommodate claim under the Americans with Disabilities Act. Counts V through VIII allege civil conspiracy based on the conduct underlying Counts I, II, III, and IV. Defendants have moved to dismiss all eight counts for differing reasons.

         II. ANALYSIS

         1. Counts I and II-Pleading Sufficiency of Plaintiff's Retaliation-Based Section 1983 claims

          To establish a prima facie case of retaliation under Section 1983, it must be proven that: (1) plaintiff engaged in protected activity; (2) the employer took an adverse employment action against plaintiff resulting in a material change to the terms or conditions of employment; and (3) employer's retaliatory motive played a part in the adverse employment action. Hughes v. Stottlemyre, 454 F.3d 791, 796 (8th Cir. 2006).

         Eighth Circuit precedent requires “a causal connection between the protected activity and the adverse employment action.” Jones v. Fitzgerald, 285 F.3d 705, 713 (8th Cir. 2002).

         This causality aspect is supported through satisfaction of the third element, which uses a retaliatory motive to identify a causal link between plaintiff's protected activity and defendant's adverse employment action. Necessarily, then, a defendant must have some basic knowledge of the protected activity in order that he or she can develop a retaliatory motive to take action against it. See Lyons v. Vaught, 781 F.3d 958, 963 (8th Cir. 2015). That said, a retaliatory motive need not be open and obvious-it is a rare case that an employer openly says they are acting against their employee due to protected activity. Rather, “[e]vidence that gives rise to an inference of a retaliatory motive on the part of the employer”-such as a short lapse in time between protected act and adverse employment action with little other justifying reason-“is sufficient to prove a causal connection.” Hughes, 454 F.3d at 797; see also Pye v. Nu Aire, Inc., 641 F.3d 1011, 1022 (8th Cir. 2011) (discussing temporal proximity as a sign of retaliatory motive).

         In seeking dismissal under Rule 12(b)(6), defendants argue plaintiff's complaint is simply too sparse in its allegations regarding the unique knowledge and reactive conduct of each defendant. They argue the complaint does not explain what each defendant knew, if anything, about plaintiff's protected conduct and, furthermore, does not explain what, if any, actions were taken because of this knowledge. In essence, they believe there are insufficient facts to support the third element of plaintiff's claim, stating “plaintiff fails to allege a causal connection between [plaintiff] filing grievances about the conditions at MSI and his termination[.]”[1] This Court disagrees.

         In Hughes v. Stottlemyre, the Eighth Circuit explained that “causation can be established by direct personal participation in the deprivation or by participation setting in motion a series of acts by others which the actor knows or reasonably should know would cause others to inflict constitutional injuries on third parties.” 454 F.3d 791, 798 (2006) (quoting Darnell v. Ford, 903 F.2d 556, 562 (8th Cir. 1990)). Hughes involved a situation in which the plaintiff had offended his supervisors by criticizing a workplace policy they supported. In retaliation, the supervisors initiated four disciplinary complaints against plaintiff. Id. at 794-795. This ultimately resulted in the plaintiff being demoted and transferred to another division. Id. It was emphasized that “there is no evidence [plaintiff] would have been demoted and transferred but for the four complaints [his supervisors initiated against him].” Id. at 799. Therefore, the Eighth Circuit held that plaintiff had stated a prima facie case against his supervisors by alleging a “but for causation[al]” link between their conduct (initiating complaints) and the eventual adverse employment action taken against plaintiff (demotion and termination). Id.

         In so holding, the Eighth Circuit specifically relied on the fact that evidence pointed to the supervisors initiating the complaints because of their awareness and strong dislike for plaintiff's protected activities-there, his protected speech under the First Amendment to speak out against a workplace policy that affected public safety. Id. at 796, 798-799. The Eighth Circuit also agreed that plaintiff had stated a prima facie case against another defendant who actually investigated the supervisors' complaints, though apparently in an obstructive manner designed to harm plaintiff. There was evidence suggesting this person was “enlisted” by the supervisors to further their “plan” against plaintiff. Id. at 795, 799. However, the Eighth Circuit dismissed the defendant who was actually responsible for making the decision to demote and transfer the plaintiff. As to this particular defendant, it was concluded that he had no knowledge of plaintiff's protected activities but, instead, relied purely on the unrelated disciplinary issues investigated in the four complaints-in essence, despite taking the ultimate action against plaintiff, he was an unknowing pawn in the supervisors' plan and had no retaliatory motive himself. Id. at 798.

         Hughes demonstrates the important interaction between a defendant's individual knowledge of a plaintiff's protected activity and his or her own unique response to that knowledge-conduct that either directly resulted in an adverse employment action or that causally led to an adverse employment action. Without knowledge of a protected activity, there can be no retaliatory motive; and without an adverse response based on that knowledge, there can be no but-for causation-both are necessary components.

         With this rubric in mind, the Court finds the complaint fairly comports with the specificity of allegations deemed sufficient in Hughes. As such, the Court holds plaintiff has sufficiently stated a prima facie case against each defendant except for Deeken. Deeken is mentioned only three times in the complaint and none of those references say anything more than that she “did not address” concerns raised by plaintiff, by letter, that he was being “targeted” for his protected activities-this vague reference does not satisfy that Deeken ...

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