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Mucci v. St. Francois County Ambulance District

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

November 20, 2019

MARC MUCCI, Plaintiff,
v.
ST. FRANCOIS COUNTY AMBULANCE DISTRICT, DAVID TETRAULT, DAVID KATER, SONJA HAMPTON, SUSIE WEBB, RON KENNON, LAURA MORAN, and STAN SOUDEN, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM AND ORDER

          NOELLE C. COLLINS UNITED STATES MAGISTRATE JUDGE.

         This matter is before the Court on Defendants St. Francois County Ambulance District, David Tetrault, David Kater, Sonja Hampton, Susie Webb, Ron Kennon, Laura Moran, and Stan Souden's (collectively “Defendants”) Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 13). The Motion is fully briefed and ready for disposition. The parties have consented to the jurisdiction of the undersigned United States Magistrate Judge pursuant to 28 U.S.C. 636(c)(1) (Doc. 17). For the following reasons, Defendants' Motion will be GRANTED, in part and DENIED, in part.

         I. Legal Standard for a Motion to Dismiss

         Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 8(a)(2) requires “a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief.” Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) provides for a motion to dismiss based on the “failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted.” To survive a motion to dismiss a complaint must show “‘that the pleader is entitled to relief,' in order to ‘give the defendant fair notice of what the . . . claim is and the grounds upon which it rests.'” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (quoting Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957)). “Threadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice” to defeat a motion to dismiss. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). “[O]nly a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss.” Id. at 679 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). The pleading standard of Rule 8 “does not require ‘detailed factual allegations,' but it demands more than an unadorned, the-defendant-unlawfully-harmed-me accusation.” Id. at 678 (quoting Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). “When ruling on a defendant's motion to dismiss, a judge must accept as true all of the factual allegations contained in the complaint.” Erickson v. Pardus, 551 U.S. 89, 94 (2007). All reasonable inferences from the complaint must be drawn in favor of the nonmoving party. Schaaf v. Residential Funding Corp., 517 F.3d 544, 549 (8th Cir. 1999).

         II. Background

         On July 1, 2019, Plaintiff Marc Mucci (“Mucci”) filed this six-count action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the Missouri Constitution, and Missouri state law against St. Francois County Ambulance District (“the District”) and David Tetrault, David Kater, Sonja Hampton, Susie Webb, Ron Kennon, Laura Moran, and Stan Souden (the “Individual Defendants”) (Doc. 1). David Tetrault (“Tetrault”) is the Administrator of the District (Id. at ¶8). The remaining Individual Defendants are members of the District's Board (Id. at ¶¶9-14). The Individual Defendants are sued in their individual and official capacities. Mucci alleges that he was wrongfully terminated after speaking at a public meeting of the District's Board in violation of his right to free speech (Count I), right to freedom of association (Count II), and rights to free speech, freedom of assembly/association, and collective bargaining under the Missouri Constitution (Count III). Mucci further alleges that his termination constitutes unlawful retaliation in violation of the right of freedom of association under Missouri Revised Statute § 105.500, et seq. (Count IV), unlawful disciplinary action in violation of Missouri Revised Statute § 105.055, et seq. (Count V), and wrongful discharge in violation of Missouri public policy (Count VI). Mucci seeks monetary, injunctive and declaratory relief.

         The relevant facts, in the light most favorable to Mucci, are as follows. Mucci was employed by the District as a paramedic. Mucci was, at the time of the events underlying the current action, and continues to be, through December 31, 2020, the elected President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, Local 3705 (“the Union”), a labor association representing the emergency medical technicians and paramedics of the District. At a public District Board meeting on November 26, 2018, Mucci, acting in his role as President of the Union, raised several issues to the District's Board. After this meeting, Mucci was placed on administrative leave, was forced to undergo a mental health evaluation, and was ultimately terminated.

         On August 30, 2019, Defendants filed the current Motion to Dismiss Counts III, IV, V, and VI of Mucci's Complaint (Doc. 12). Defendants assert that Count III fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted (Doc. 13 at 2-5). Defendants argue that Count IV fails as a matter of law and should be dismissed because Mucci cannot bring a civil action for damages pursuant to Missouri Revised Statute § 105.510 (Id. at 5). Defendants assert that Count V against the Individual Defendants fails because they are not a “public employer” under Missouri Revised Statute § 105.055 (Id. at 5-7). Defendants alternatively assert that any claims against the Individual Defendants in their official capacities are redundant of the claims against the District and should be dismissed (Id. at 7).[1] Defendants assert that Count VI fails as a matter of law under the Whistleblower's Protection Act (“WPA”) because the WPA preempts the common law public policy exclusion to the at-will employment doctrine and neither the District or the Individual Employees are “employer[s]” under the statutory scheme (Id. at 7-8). Defendants further assert that if the Court were to determine the WPA does not apply to Mucci's claims then they fail under the common law because Mucci's claim against the District would be barred by sovereign immunity and Mucci's claims against the Individual Defendants are insufficient because Missouri courts require an employee-employer relationship to establish a claim under the public policy exception and the Individual Defendants are not Mucci's employer (Id. at 9-10).

         III. Analysis

         A. Count III: Violations of Missouri Constitutional Law

         First, Defendants assert that Count III fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted as a matter of law (Doc. 13 at 2-5). In Count III, Mucci alleges the violation of his rights to free speech and freedom of association under Sections 8 and 9 of Article I of the Missouri Constitution and to bargain collectively under Section 29 of Article I of the Missouri Constitution (Doc. 1 at 17-19). Defendants argue that Mucci failed to allege “that any Defendant passed any law” to infringe Mucci's right to free speech, that Mucci failed to allege that any Defendant interfered with Mucci's right to peaceably assemble in any way, and that Mucci failed to allege that any Defendant interfered with Mucci's right organize and bargain collectively (Doc. 13 at 3). Mucci responds, disclaiming any “tort damages” as to this Count and asserting that he has properly and sufficiently alleged violations of the Missouri Constitution (Doc. 20 at 5-7).

         The Missouri Bill of Rights, encompassed in Article I of the Missouri Constitution, includes the rights to freedom of speech, peaceable assembly and petition, and organized labor and collective bargaining. Specifically, under Article I, Section 8 of the Missouri Constitution, “[N]o law shall be passed impairing the freedom of speech.” Article I, Section 9 provides a right to assembly, stating, “[T]he people have the right peaceably to assemble for their common good, and to apply to those invested with the powers of government for redress of grievances by petition or remonstrance.” The rights to free speech and assembly under Article I, Sections 8 and 9 track the corresponding rights under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. See Am. Fed'n of Teachers v. Ledbetter, 387 S.W.3d 360, 364 (Mo. 2012). As such, “[p]ublic employee speech is protected from retaliation, in certain circumstances, if the speech addresses a matter of public concern.” Bailey v. Dep't of Elementary & Secondary Educ., 451 F.3d 514, 518 (8th Cir. 2006). See also Mogard v. City of Milbank, 932 F.3d 1184, 1189 (8th Cir. 2019) (“A public employee's speech is protected under the First Amendment if he spoke as a citizen on a matter of public concern . . . .”) (internal quotation marks omitted). Similarly, a public employee is authorized to engage in union activities and is protected from retaliation for his associations. Serv. Employees Int'l Union Local 2000 v. State, 214 S.W.3d 368, 372 (Mo.Ct.App. 2007). A right to collective bargaining is established in Article I, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution. It states, “[t]hat employees shall have the right to organize and to bargain collectively through representatives of their own choosing.” Section 29 protects an employee from any coercive conduct by the employer, including threats of discharge or changes in compensation, hours of work and other working conditions, which denies the employee the right to organize and choose collective bargaining representatives. Quinn v. Buchanan, 298 S.W.2d 413, 417, 418 (Mo. banc 1957).

         As a preliminary matter, the Missouri General Assembly has not enacted any law similar to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 that gives citizens a private cause of action to sue state actors for damages for violations of the Missouri Constitution. Smith v. Sachse, No. 4:17-CV-2593 SPM, 2018 WL 3159081, at *7 (E.D. Mo. June 28, 2018). See also Moody v. Hicks, 956 S.W.2d 398, 402 (Mo.Ct.App. 1997) (“[N]o Missouri precedent exists permitting suits for monetary damages by private individuals resulting from violations of the Missouri Constitution.”); Collins-Camden P'ship, L.P. v. Cty. of Jefferson, 425 S.W.3d 210, 214 (Mo.Ct.App. 2014) (“No Missouri precedent exists permitting suits for monetary damages by private individuals resulting from violations of the Missouri Constitution.”). An exception to this general rule appears to be in the context of Article I, Section 29 of the Missouri Constitution where the Missouri Supreme Court has found that a wrongful discharge under this provision entitles an employee to damages. Ledbetter, 387 S.W.3d at 372 (citing Smith v. Arthur C. Baue Funeral Home, 370 S.W.2d 249, 254 (Mo. 1963)). Regardless, as addressed above, Mucci has specifically disclaimed any damages as it relates to this count.

         Mucci has sufficiently alleged a claim for the violation of his right to free speech, right to freedom of association/assembly, and right to collective bargaining under the Missouri Constitution. Mucci alleges that after engaging in protected activity in the form of speech and assembly on matters of public concern in furtherance of his role in collective bargaining as President of the Union, he was harassed, required to undergo a fitness for duty examination, placed on administrative leave, and terminated from his employment in retaliation for these protected activities. It is well-established, as alleged by Mucci, that an employer may not discharge an employee for engaging in union activities, for speaking on matters of public concern, or based on the employee's ...


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