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Allsberry v. Flynn

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

October 18, 2019

KARLA K. ALLSBERRY, et al., Plaintiffs,
JUDGE PATRICK S. FLYNN, in his individual capacity, et al., Defendants.



         This matter comes before the Court on plaintiff Karla K. Allsberry's motion for temporary restraining order (#5) and motion for preliminary injunction (#28). The Court will consolidate these motions as requested by counsel. For the following reasons, this Court will ABSTAIN from deciding the merits of the motions pursuant to Railroad Commission of Tex. v. Pullman Co., 312 U.S. 496 (1941)-also known as Pullman abstention. However, pursuant to Eighth Circuit precedent, those motions will be denied without prejudice and this case STAYED, rather than dismissed, until such time that the parties litigate the state-law questions raised by Allsberry's motions in Missouri state court. See Doe v. McCulloch, 835 F.3d 785, 789 (8th Cir. 2016) (finding district court erred when dismissing, rather than staying, case under Pullman abstention).

         I. BACKGROUND

         This case involves a dispute between the elected circuit clerk and the elected circuit judge of Lincoln County, Missouri. During the 2018 election cycle, plaintiff Allsberry-a long-time deputy clerk-was elected circuit clerk and defendant Flynn was elected circuit judge. Allsberry alleges the two have been political rivals for some time. In 2014, Allberry helped her husband, Associate Circuit Judge Gregory Allsberry, run a successful campaign for associate circuit judge, in which he narrowly defeated Flynn.

         Their rivalry continued into office when both Allsberry and Flynn began their new jobs in January 2019. Just a few days later, Flynn was purportedly already “in a rage” and arguing with Judge Gregory Allsberry about a misplaced box. A week after that, Flynn “transferred the appointing authority for hiring and firing deputy clerks from [Allsberry] to [himself].” Then, Flynn allegedly made “working conditions intolerable” and “forc[ed the] resignation” of fellow plaintiff and deputy clerk Lori Russel, someone Allsberry calls one of her “key” clerks. Allsberry eventually appealed Flynn's appointing authority decision to the Circuit Court Budget Committee (“CCBC”). That disagreement led to another lawsuit in Cole County, Missouri, No. 19AC-CC00224, against the CCBC seeking declaratory and injunctive relief that Allsberry “is the sole appointing authority to select, appoint, supervise, and dismiss deputy circuit clerks assigned to Lincoln County[.]”

         Things continued to escalate, and on May 28, 2019, Flynn, by letter, placed Allsberry on indefinite “administrative suspension, ” citing her conduct in “creating a dysfunctional work environment for the Lincoln County Circuit Court.” Flynn specifically noted Allsberry's “failure to operate in truth, protocol, and respect.” Flynn explained that he had the authority to administratively suspend Allsberry pursuant to Section 478.240, RSMo. He expressed the suspension was “not a cause of action” and “will not cause any loss in pay or benefits.” He also stated that, if any such “action” would be forthcoming, he would notify Allsberry “of the reasons at that time along with your due process rights in accordance with Section 483.170, RSMo.” In addition to suspending Allsberry, he also ordered that she “not be permitted to enter the Justice Center or represent this office in [her] official capacity at any time.” However, after this Court raised concern at oral argument about Flynn's decision to totally restrict Allsberry from public property, Flynn wrote a second letter on October 3, 2019, clarifying

[t]he interior of the Justice Center is a nonpublic forum, [but] on the days and at those hours that the courthouse is open for the conduct of official court business, you may enter the lobby, open courtrooms and adjacent corridors, and other areas of the Justice Center that members of the general public are permitted to access.

         The case arrived to this Court under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, by way of allegations that Flynn, in his orders, had violated Allsberry's “First Amendment rights of free speech and association and [her] due process rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the United States Constitution.” The pending motions ask “the Court [to] enter a preliminary injunction, without bond, removing [Allsberry] from indefinite administrative leave, restoring her to the position of elected Clerk of the Circuit Court of Lincoln County, restoring her rights to enter the Justice Center, and barring Judge Flynn from interfering with those rights.”

         II. ANALYSIS

         The Pullman abstention doctrine “requires a federal court to refrain from exercising jurisdiction when the case involves a potentially controlling issue of state law that is unclear, and the decision of this issue by the state courts could avoid or materially alter the need for a decision on federal constitutional grounds.” Doe v. McCulloch, 835 F.3d 785, 788 (8th Cir. 2016). Thus, “Pullman abstention presupposes two conditions: (1) there must be an unsettled issue of state law, and (2) there must be a possibility that state law determination will moot the federal constitutional question raised.” Nat'l City Lines, Inc. v. LLC Corp., 687 F.2d 1122, 1226 (8th Cir. 1982).

         The state law issues in this case pertain, primarily, to two statutes: Section 478.240, RSMo and Section 483.170, RSMo. According to Section 478.240, “the presiding judge of the circuit shall have general administrative authority over all judicial personnel and court officials in the circuit[.]” § 478.240.1, RSMo (emphasis added). By contrast, Section 483.170 explains:

When any court shall believe from its own knowledge or from information secured from others given to the court under oath or affirmation, that the clerk of the court has committed some act or acts constituting a misdemeanor in office, the court shall give notice thereof, stating the charge or charges against such clerk, to the attorney general of the state or the prosecuting attorney of the county, requiring him to prosecute the same; and such court may by order of record suspend such clerk from office until a trial upon such charge or charges can be had.

§ 483.170.1, RSMo (emphasis added).

         Allsberry maintains that the exclusive way to suspend or remove her from office is under Section 483.170.1, which requires a finding of an act or acts "constituting a misdemeanor," and that Flynn's suspension of her under Section 478.240.1 is, therefore, unlawful. She explains Section 483.170.1 controls because it literally refers to suspensions and is the more specifically-worded statute of the two. This Court is mindful of the rule of construction that “where one statute deals with the subject in general terms and the other deals in a specific way, to the extent they conflict, the specific statute prevails over the general statute.” State ex rel. Hillman v. Beger, 566 S.W.3d 600, 606 (Mo. banc 2019). However, this Court disagrees with Allsberry that the issues presented are so cut-and-dried as to say “[t]here is nothing ...

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