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Simmons v. Butler

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

May 22, 2019

GEORGIE SIMMONS, et al., Plaintiffs,
v.
MICHAEL BUTLER, Defendant,

          OPINION, MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          HENRY EDWARD AUTREY, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         Introduction

         This matter is before the Court on Defendant's Motion to Dismiss Counts IV and V of Plaintiff's First Amended Complaint, [Doc. No. 16]. Plaintiffs oppose the Motion. A hearing on the motion was held on April 24, 2019. After the hearing, Defendant filed a supplemental brief in support of his motion. For the reasons set forth below, the Motion is granted.

         Facts and Background

         Plaintiffs' First Amended Complaint alleges the following:[1]

         On August 7, 2018, Defendant Michael Butler (“Butler”) defeated the incumbent Recorder of Deeds for the City of St. Louis in the primary election for that office. On November 6, 2018, Butler won the general election. Plaintiffs Georgie Simmons (“Simmons”), Johnetta Sherrod (“Sherrod”), Robert Dillard (“Dillard”), and Julie Ellison (“Ellison”) (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) were employees of the City of St. Louis Recorder of Deeds Office (the “Office”) until they were terminated on January 2, 2019, Butler's first day in office.

         None of the Plaintiffs openly supported Butler during his political campaign. In March 2018, Butler had met with Simmons and Sherrod and asked them for their support in his political campaign. Simmons and Sherrod declined to become involved with any campaign, which caused Butler to become upset. Dillard actively campaigned for Butler's opponent, the previous Recorder of Deeds. On August 7, 2018, Butler told Dillard that he could not “guarantee” his position if he did not support Butler's campaign.

         Between August 7, 2018, and January 2, 2019, Butler appeared in the Office on no fewer than four occasions, including September 7, November 16, December 10, and December 28. On these visits, he spoke with staff and provided assurances that no one would be fired for political retaliation for failing to support his candidacy. During the same time period, Butler's alleged agents, including paid campaign staffer George Poole, appeared in the Office to threaten long-term employees' positions in the Office. These agents, including Poole, said that the Plaintiffs would be terminated for not supporting Butler's political campaign. Poole appeared in the Office no fewer than five times between August 7 and December 28, 2018.

         On December 17, 2018, Denise Starks, an Office employee who was also a political supporter of Butler, filed a false sexual harassment complaint against Simmons and another employee. Plaintiffs allege that this complaint was “part of Defendant Butler's crusade against Plaintiffs to force them out of their positions, ” filed at the behest of Butler. Butler allegedly assumed that the outgoing Recorder of Deeds would not be able to process the complaint before Butler took office. Butler then would be the one to handle the complaint and have reason to terminate Simmons for cause. In fact, the outgoing Recorder of Deeds investigated the complaint and found it to be unsubstantiated. Plaintiffs allege that Butler “took advantage of Ms. Starks by conspiring with her to file a false, frivolous complaint against Plaintiff Simmons.”

         On January 2, 2019, Butler delivered letters of termination to Simmons and Sherrod. In essence, these letters offered Simmons and Sherrod two weeks' pay if they gave up their right to sue Butler and the City of St. Louis. Neither Simmons nor Sherrod would sign, and Butler terminated them. Butler included non-managerial employees in the termination meetings, which Plaintiffs claim violated Simmons' and Sherrod's right to privacy. As Sherrod was leaving City Hall, George Poole physically confronted Sherrod in front of dozens of onlookers, causing Sherrod significant emotional distress and embarrassment.

         Butler replaced Simmons and Sherrod with political associates who had no previous experience in the Recorder of Deeds Office. Plaintiffs aver that the replacements lacked requisite professional experience for the positions to which they were assigned.

         The Recorder of Deeds Employee Policy & Benefit manual expressly states that an employee's “position in the Recorder's Office is no way impacted negatively or positively by [her or his] participation in the political process.” Defendant issued a “status” form letter for each terminated employee that did not include the reason for termination as required by policy. Additionally, Butler dated the status letters for January 7, 2019, but did not send them until January 15, 2019. This “backdating” was allegedly done in an effort to prevent Plaintiffs from requesting a disciplinary hearing within the 10-day time limit required by policy.

         Plaintiffs allege that they were wrongfully terminated in violation of the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments as retaliation for not supporting Butler in his political campaign for the office of Recorder of Deeds. Plaintiffs allege that Butler's conduct was willful and intentional and that he intentionally caused Plaintiffs emotional distress, pain and suffering, and health problems including elevated blood pressure, severe anxiety, and depression. Plaintiffs also allege loss of income and loss of potential employment opportunities due to the history of “firing” in their employment record.

         Plaintiff's Complaint alleges: violation of their First Amendment rights (Count I); violation of their Fifth Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights to due process (Count II and Count III, respectively); that they are entitled to declaratory judgment ...


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