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Schruder v. Banbury

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 4, 2014



RONALD E. BUSH, Magistrate Judge.

Currently pending before the Court are (1) Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Docket No. 22), and (2) Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 23). Having carefully considered the record, participated in oral argument, and otherwise being fully advised, the Court enters the following Memorandum Decision and Order:


1. On October 4, 2007, Plaintiff was hired as a Valley County Deputy Treasurer to work in the Treasurer's office and also assist Treasurer Glenna Young in performing human resource-related work. At that time, the Valley County Treasurer was responsible for managing Valley County's human resources. See Defs.' Stmt. of Undisp. Fact ("SOUF") Nos. 1-3 (Docket No. 23, Att. 2); Pl.'s Stmt. of Disp. Fact ("SODF") Nos. 1-2 (Docket No. 26).

2. In early 2010, Valley County brought on Tami Rhodes, an independent contractor, to serve as its Human Resources Director. See Defs.' SOUF No. 5 (Docket No. 23, Att. 2); Pl.'s SODF No. 2 (Docket No. 26). The human resources responsibilities previously performed by the Valley County Treasurer were reassigned to Rhodes; Plaintiff stopped performing human resources-related work soon thereafter. See id .

3. On August 2, 2011, Plaintiff sent an email from her work email account to the Valley County Board of Commissioners (the "Board") and Valley County Clerk, Archie Banbury, informing them of "problems with bats" being faced by the Valley County Building Department:

I left a message on Mr. Cruickshank's phone to let him know that the Building Dept. is having problems with Bats. Today is the second one they have found this week. Yesterday the bat was dead, this one today the bat was alive. Just wanted to let you know as I feel this is a health issue if someone got bit by one.

See Defs.' SOUF Nos. 21-22 (Docket No. 23, Att. 2).

4. On August 15, 2011, Mses. Young and Rhodes met with Plaintiff to inform her that she was being laid off. See id . at No. 17. Defendants describe the layoff as being the result of a legitimate reduction-in-force, owing to a downturn in the local economy and a corresponding 23% budget reduction for the fiscal year ending on September 30, 2012. See id . at Nos. 6-17, & 24. Plaintiff says that the budget reduction was a phony justification for her termination, and contends that she was really terminated because of her email about bats. See Pl.'s SODF Nos. 3-4 & 10 (Docket No. 26).

5. The Board did not grant Plaintiff any reinstatement preferences when she was terminated. See Defs.' SOUF No. 18 (Docket No. 23, Att. 2). Plaintiff applied for four positions with the County that came open after she was laid off - a Deputy Clerk position with the Valley County Sheriff's Office, a Plat Clerk position with the Valley County Assessor's office, a Deputy Recorder position with the Valley County Recorder's Office, and a Senior Deputy Treasurer in the Valley County Treasurer's Office - but she was not re-hired. See id . at No. 19.

6. Plaintiff's employment with Valley County was governed by the Valley County Personnel Manual (the "Manual"). See Defs.' SOUF No. 4 (Docket No. 23, Att. 2); Pl.'s SOUF No. 1 (Docket No. 22, Att. 1). The Manual reads in relevant part:

§ IV(A)(1) Except as otherwise provided in this paragraph, employees of Valley County will not be suspended without pay, demoted with an accompanying change in pay, or discharged from their positions except for cause related to performance of their job duties or other violations of this policy . Cause shall be determined by the employee's supervisor/elected official and shall be communicated in writing to the employee when employee status is changed.
Only suspension without pay, demotion with change of pay, or discharge for cause shall be subject to the appeal procedure set forth in this personnel policy . The appeal procedure is to be construed in a directory manner
Changes in employment status which are the result of budgetary needs, reductions in force , reorganization of work duties through transfer or reassignment, or general changes in the terms or onditions of employment or of benefit offerings shall not be subject to the appeal procedure set forth herein ....
§ IV(B)(13) Employee assignments may be affected by reductions in force made due to economic conditions or to changes in staffing and workload. The Board reserves the right to make any changes in work force or assignment of resources that it deems to be in the organization's best interests. The Board may also specify at the time reductions in force are made what reinstatement preferences may accompany the reductions. Said reinstatement preferences may be tied to the classification of the employee or to specialized skills possessed by the employee.
§ VI(A) When financial circumstances or changes of workload require, Valley County reserves the right to reduce forces in such manner as it deems necessary to maintain the effective functioning of Valley County services . Decisions about the functions to be reduced are not subject to the appeal procedure established by Valley County
§ VI(B) Employees who leave Valley County employment due to a reduction in force shall retain a first right to return in the event of work force rebuilding for one year from the date of their separation . Employees shall retain a preference only for work for which they are fully qualified and for which available service requirements can be met.

Manual at pp. 9-10, 13, & 24-25 (attached as Ex. A to Pl.'s MPSJ) (Docket No. 22, Att. 3) (emphasis added).

7. Plaintiff filed this lawsuit on July 16, 2013, seeking "damages as a result of Plaintiff's termination of public employment by Defendants and their subsequent failure to reinstate her." Compl., p. 2 (Docket No. 1). She makes the following federal and state claims against Defendants: (1) termination without due process (federal Count I), (2) failure to reinstate without due process (federal Count II), (3) violation of constitutional "free speech" (federal Count III), (4) termination without due process (state Count I), (5) failure to reinstate without due process (state Count II), and (6) retaliation against "freedom of speech" (state Count III). See id . at pp. 5-11.

8. On February 26, 2014, Plaintiff filed her Motion for Partial Summary Judgment, asking for the Court to rule that she had a constitutional property interest in her employment relationship with Valley County. See Pl.'s MPSJ (Docket No. 22).

9. On March 11, 2014, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment (effectively opposing Plaintiff's Motion for Partial Summary Judgment at the same time), arguing that each of Plaintiff's federal and state claims must be dismissed as a matter of law. See Defs.' MSJ (Docket No. 23).


A. Motions for Summary Judgment: The Standard

Summary judgment is properly granted when no genuine and disputed issues of material fact remain, and when, viewing the evidence in a light most favorable to the non-moving party, the movant is clearly entitled to prevail as a matter of law. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 56; Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 322-23 (1986). The moving party bears the burden of showing that there is no material factual dispute, and the court must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the party against whom summary judgment is sought. See Celotex , 477 U.S. at 324. Material facts which would preclude summary judgment are those which may affect the outcome of the case. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc. , 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986). The relevant substantive law will determine which facts are material for purposes of summary judgment. See id .

Where, as here, both parties move for summary judgment, the summary judgment standard does not change, and the court must evaluate each party's motion on the merits. See Farm Bureau Ins. Co. of Idaho v. Kinsey , 234 P.3d 739, 742 (Idaho 2010) (citation omitted); see also Nolan v. Heald College , 551 F.3d 1148, 1154 (9th Cir. 2009) (applying traditional summary judgment standards to cross-motions for summary judgment in ERISA benefits denial case). Where the moving party does not bear the burden of proof on an issue at trial, the moving party may discharge its burden of showing there is no genuine issue of material fact by demonstrating an "absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case." Celotex , 477 U.S. at 325. If the moving party establishes an absence of evidence to support the non-moving party's case, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to produce "specific evidence, through affidavits or admissible discovery material, to show that the dispute exists." Bhan v. NME Hosp. Inc. , 929 F.2d 1404, 1409 (9th Cir. 1991). A complete failure of proof concerning an essential element of the non-moving party's case renders all other facts immaterial. See Celotex , 477 U.S. at 323.

Where the moving party instead bears the burden of proof on an issue at trial, "it must, in order to discharge its burden of showing that no genuine issue of material fact remains, make a prima facie showing in support of its position on that issue. That is, the moving party must prevent evidence that, if uncontroverted at trial, would entitle it to prevail on that issue. Once it has done so, the non-moving party must set forth specific facts controverting the moving party's prima facie case." Sabatino v. Liberty Life Assur. Co. of Boston , 286 F.Supp.2d 1222, 1229 (N.D. Cal. 2003) (citing UA Local 343 v. Nor-Cal Plumbing, Inc. , 48 F.3d 1465, 1471 (9th Cir. 1994)).

B. Plaintiffs' Procedural Due Process Claims

The Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution protects individuals from the deprivation of liberty or property by the government without due process. A § 1983 claim based upon procedural due process contains three elements: (1) a liberty or property interest protected by the United States Constitution; (2) a deprivation of that interest by the government; and (3) a denial of adequate procedural protections. See Portman v. County of Santa Clara , 995 F.2d 898, 904 (9th Cir. 1993).

To state a claim under the Due Process Clause, Plaintiff must first establish that she possessed a property interest deserving of constitutional protection. See Brewster v. Bd. of Educ. of the Lynwood Unified Sch. Dist. , 149 F.3d 971, 982 (9th Cir. 1998); see also Gilbert v. Homar , 520 U.S. 924, 928-29 (1997). If a property interest exists, the essential requirements of due process are notice and opportunity to respond. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill et al. , 470 U.S. 532, 546 (1985). The Due Process Clause does ...

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