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Hollist v. Madison County

United States District Court, D. Idaho

October 9, 2014

PAMELA HOLLIST, Plaintiff,
v.
MADISON COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Idaho, and ROY KLINGLER, in his individual and official capacity, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

B. LYNN WINMILL, Chief District Judge.

INTRODUCTION

The Court has before it Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Dkt. 24), as well as Plaintiff Pamela Hollist's Cross-Motion for Partial Summary Judgment (Dkt. 25). The court heard oral arguments on the motions on July 25, 2014. For the reasons expressed below, the Court will grant Defendants' motion for summary judgment as to the equal protection and freedom of association claims, and deny summary judgment as to the due process claim. The Court will deny Hollist's cross motion for partial summary judgment.

BACKGROUND

Plaintiff Pamela Hollist began working for Defendant Madison County in October 2007 as a detention officer in the Madison County Jail. When Hollist was hired, she and Sheriff Roy Klinger signed Hollist's Conditional Offer of Employment, which expressly established her status as an at-will introductory employee for a period of one year after the date of her hire. Employment Offer , Dkt. 25-7. Hollist was also provided with a copy of Madison County's Personnel Policy ("MCPP") and Madison County Sheriff's Office Policy and Procedure Manual.

In the course of her employment, Hollist met inmate Daniel Little, who was incarcerated in Madison County Jail for a felony conviction. This conviction stemmed from an incident in 2009, when Little engaged Madison County police officers in a high-speed chase following a traffic stop. The chase covered two counties and resulted in shots being fired at Mr. Little in an effort to get him to stop. Little Dep. , pp. 28-31. Little was eventually arrested in Fremont County and charged with felony eluding. Little was returned to Madison County and booked into jail. Id. at 34:5-9. Little remained at the Madison County Jail pending sentencing for approximately nine months. Id. at 37:1.

Following Little's conviction, he was released on probation, supervised by Madison County, in 2010. Around July 2010, Hollist hired Little to train a horse she had recently purchased. The two began dating in approximately October 2010. Hollist did not notify Sherriff Klinger or any other supervisors of her relationship with Little.

Policy 1050 of the Sheriff's Manual prohibits certain conflicting relationships. Sheriff's Manual at § 1052(e), Dkt. 24-8. Specifically, the Conflicting Relationships Policy prohibits an employee from knowingly commencing or maintaining a relationship "with any person who is under criminal investigation, indictment, arrest, or incarceration by this or another law enforcement agency, and/or who has an open and notorious criminal reputation in the community (for example, persons whom they know, should know, or have reason to believe are involved in felonious activity)." Id. The policy specifically excludes "immediate relatives" from this prohibition: "Except... in the case of immediate relatives ...." Id. (emphasis added). The policy defines a "relative" as an "employee's parent, stepparent, spouse, domestic partner, significant other, child (natural, adopted or step), sibling or grandparent." Id. at 1050.1.1.

The policy also defines three types of relationships: Personal Relationship, Social Relationship, and Business Relationship. Id. A Personal Relationship "Includes marriage, cohabitation, dating, or any other intimate relationship beyond mere friendship." Id. A Social Relationship "Includes communication to individuals in person, by mail, by telephone, by text messaging or by email." Id. And a Business Relationship is defined as "Serving as an employee, independent contractor, compensated consultant, owner, board member, shareholder, or investor in an outside business, company, partnership, corporation, venture, or obligation that is greater than $250." Id.

Sheriff Klinger ultimately learned of the relationship between Little and Hollist after another jailer observed Little and Hollist together. Grover Dep ., pp. 23:22-25; and 24:1-4. Sherriff Klinger called Hollist in for a meeting, and confronted her about the potentially-conflicting relationship. Hollist Dep. , p. 88:10-14. Hollist admitted to the relationship with Little and agreed that it violated policy. Id. at 90:3-9. Klinger believed her relationship amounted to a policy violation because of Little's probationary status. Klinger Dep. , p. 97:5-17.

Previously, Klinger assessed a male employee, Captain Seipert, for a similar violation. Seipert's wife was convicted of felony grand theft and misuse of public money for embezzling from Madison County and ordered to pay restitution of $62, 515.75 while the two were married. Siepert Dep. , pp. 59-61. Klinger determined that Seipert's situation fell within the spousal exception to the policy, and he was allowed to remain employed despite his wife's conviction. Klinger Dep. , pp.67-68; 70-74.

On June 16, 2011, during a meeting with Klinger, Hollist received a "Notice of Proposed Personnel Action-Termination and Notice of Suspension With Pay Pending Decision." On June 17, 2011, Hollist tendered her resignation to Klinger in lieu of pursuing administrative appeal remedies for the proposed termination. She did not pursue her administrative appeal because she believed it would be futile.

Hollist submitted notice of these claims to Madison County pursuant to Idaho Code § 6-901, et seq. Hollist brings claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Idaho Constitution alleging violations of her right to equal protection, freedom of association, and due process. Defendants argue that Hollist's resignation precludes her claims. They seek summary judgment on all of her claims. Hollist seeks partial summary judgment, asking the Court to find that she had a property interest in continued employment and that her employment with Madison County was contractual.

LEGAL STANDARD

One of the principal purposes of the summary judgment "is to isolate and dispose of factually unsupported claims...." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett , 477 U.S. 317, 323-24 (1986). It is "not a disfavored procedural shortcut, " but is instead the "principal tool[] by which factually insufficient claims or defenses [can] be isolated and prevented from going to trial with the attendant unwarranted consumption of public and private resources." Id . at 327. "[T]he mere existence of some alleged factual dispute between the parties will not defeat an otherwise properly supported motion for summary judgment." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc ., 477 U.S. 242, 247-48 (1986).

When cross-motions for summary judgment are filed, the Court must independently search the record for factual disputes. Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, Inc. v. Riverside Two , 249 F.3d 1132, 1136 (9th Cir. 2001). The filing of cross-motions for summary judgment - where both parties essentially assert that there are no material factual disputes - does not vitiate the court's responsibility to determine whether disputes as to material fact are present. Id.

The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute as to material fact. Devereaux v. Abbey , 263 F.3d 1070, 1076 (9th Cir. 2001) (en banc). To carry this burden, the moving party need not introduce any affirmative evidence (such as affidavits or deposition excerpts) but may simply point out the absence of evidence to support the nonmoving party's case. Fairbank v. Wunderman Cato Johnson, 212 F.3d 528, 532 (9th Cir.2000).

This shifts the burden to the non-moving party to produce evidence sufficient to support a jury verdict in her favor. Deveraux , 263 F.3d at 1076. The non-moving party must go beyond the pleadings and show "by her [] affidavits, or by the depositions, answers to interrogatories, or admissions on file" that a genuine dispute of material fact exists. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 324.

However, the Court is "not required to comb through the record to find some reason to deny a motion for summary judgment." Carmen v. San Francisco Unified Sch. Dist., 237 F.3d 1026, 1029 (9th Cir. 2001) (quotation omitted). Instead, the "party opposing summary judgment must direct [the Court's] attention to specific triable facts." Southern California Gas Co. v. City of Santa Ana , 336 F.3d 885, 889 (9th Cir. 2003).

ANALYSIS

1. Constructive Discharge

The first question before the Court is whether Hollist's resignation constituted a constructive discharge. Unless Hollist can show constructive discharge, she cannot show an adverse employment action, which is a required element of her federal and state law claims.

To survive summary judgment on a constructive discharge claim, a plaintiff must point to triable issues of fact tending to show a reasonable person would have felt forced to resign because of intolerable and discriminatory working conditions. Poland v. Chertoff , 494 F.3d 1174, 1184 (9th Cir. 2007). An employee may also demonstrate that their decision to resign was involuntary in the absence of intolerable working conditions. Knappenberger v. City of Phoenix , 566 F.3d 936, 941 (9th Cir. 2009). Whether a reasonable employee in the plaintiff's position would feel she had no choice but to resign is normally a factual question for the jury. See Wallace v. City of San Diego , 479 F.3d 616, 626 (9th Cir. 2007).

Here, it is undisputed that Hollist submitted a letter of resignation only when faced with disciplinary action "up to and including discharge" for her violation of Madison County policy prohibiting conflicting relationships.

In support of her claim of constructive discharge, Hollist asserts that she was forced to choose between her relationship with Little and her continued employment. Although Klinger mentioned the possibility of imposing "discipline" on Hollist for her violation, he stated it was "cut and dry" that Hollist would be terminated unless she was willing to end her relationship with Little. Hollist had the option of pursuing an appeal process, but Klinger would be the official overseeing her appeal.

Taking the evidence in the light most favorable to Hollist, there is a genuine issue of fact regarding whether a reasonable person in Hollist's position would have felt compelled to resign based on the totality of the circumstances. Hollist's evidence tends to prove that if she did not terminate her relationship with Little, she would have been fired. The evidence also tends to show that Klinger had pre-determined the outcome to an appeal procedure such that an appeal would have been futile. This evidence is sufficient to support a jury finding that Defendants gave Hollist an ultimatum (which was effectively unappealable) to either resign or be fired. Thus, a jury could reasonably conclude that Hollist was constructively discharged.

2. 42 U.S.C. § 1983 Claims

To state a claim against a local government entity under § 1983, a plaintiff must allege a violation of rights either protected by the Constitution or created by federal statute that is proximately caused by the conduct of a "person" acting under the color of state law. Crumpton v. Gates , 947 F.2d 1418, 1420 (9th Cir. 1991).

Hollist brings her claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, the civil rights statute. She alleges that Defendants constructively discharged her in violation of her Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection and in ...


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