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Timothy v. Oneida County

United States District Court, D. Idaho

March 21, 2017

HEATHER S. TIMOTHY, an individual, Plaintiff,
v.
ONEIDA COUNTY, a political subdivision of the State of Idaho; DUSTIN W. SMITH, individually and in his capacity as Prosecuting Attorney for Oneida County, Idaho; SHELLEE DANIELS, DALE F. TUBBS and MAX C. FIRTH, individually and in their capacities as Oneida County Commissioners, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          B. Lynn Winmill Chief Judge United States District Court

         INTRODUCTION

         Before the Court are cross-motions for partial summary judgment. See Dkts. 60, 63. For the reasons explained below, the Court will grant defendants' motion and dismiss plaintiff's due process claim. The Court will deny plaintiff's motion for partial summary judgment on the remaining claims for: (1) retaliatory discharge in violation of the First Amendment; (2) retaliatory discharge in violation of Idaho's whistleblower statute; (3) negligent infliction of emotional distress; and (4) retaliatory discharge in violation of public policy.

         FACTS

         Plaintiff Heather Timothy worked as a legal secretary for Oneida County from November 2005 through March 2014. See SOF[1] ¶ 1. During her employment, Oneida County promulgated various employee policy manuals. Id. ¶ 3. Timothy says that certain provisions in the policy manual, as well as written communications she received from Defendant Dustin Smith, will assist her in demonstrating that she was no longer an at-will employee of the County.

         1. Provisions of Oneida County's Personnel Policy Manual

         Several provisions of the Oneida County Personnel Policy Manual are relevant here, beginning with this disclaimer, which is contained on the first substantive page:

THIS PERSONNEL POLICY IS NOT A CONTRACT. ANY AND ALL EMPLOYMENT WITH ONEIDA COUNTY IS CONSIDERED TO BE “AT WILL” UNLESS A SIGNED AND WRITTEN CONTRACT INDICATES OTHERWISE. NO CONTRACT OF EMPLOYMENT WITH ONEIDA COUNTY WILL BE VALID UNLESS IT IS SIGNED IN ACCORDANCE WITH PROPER PROCEDURES BY A SPECIFICALLY AUTHORIZED REPRESENTATIVE OF THE ONEIDA COUNTY COMMISSIONERS AND UNLESS IT IS SIGNED BY AND CONTAINS THE NAME OF THE EMPLOYEE WHO WOULD BE BENEFITTED BY THE CONTRACT.

Oneida County Personnel Policy, Dkt. 46-8, at 3.

         In the next sentence, the manual states that the policies may be changed at any time, without any prior notice:

CHANGES TO THE POLICIES AND BENEFIT OFFERINGS OUTLINED IN THIS HANDBOOK ARE SUBJECT TO CHANGE AT ANY TIME, WITHOUT NOTICE. CHANGES MAY BE MADE IN THE SOLE DISCRETION OF THE GOVERNING BOARD.

Id.

         In a later section, the manual states that “new” employees of Oneida County are subject to a six-month introductory period, during which time “either the employee or Oneida County may end the employment relationship at will, with or without cause or advance notice.” Id. at 15. Another paragraph, entitled “Employment Status, ” states that County employees will not be discharged except for cause:

Except as otherwise provided in this paragraph, employees of Oneida County will not be suspended without pay, demoted with an accompanying change in pay, or discharged from their positions except for cause related to the 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 the employee status is changed.

Id. at 22 (emphasis in original). Under this same section heading, however, the manual states that “Oneida County retains full authority, without prior notice, to modify the general terms and conditions of employment.” Id.

         A final set of provisions relevant to this lawsuit relates to discharge, demotion, and appeal hearings. First, within a section captioned “General Policies, ” the manual states that department heads and elected officials have the authority to “suspend, discharge, or take other disciplinary action against employees for cause.” Id. at 13. A later section, captioned “Employee Discipline Procedures and Principles, ” contains more specific provisions relevant to discharge, demotion, and appeal hearings. Id. at 33-34. This section begins with a general explanation of the “Purpose of [the] Discipline Policy”:

The purpose underlying the discipline policy of Oneida County is to establish a consistent procedure for maintaining suitable behavior and a productive working environment in the workplace. These procedures are discretionary in nature and minor variations of the processes set forth herein shall not affect the validity of any actions taken pursuant to this policy.

Id. at 33. The manual then adopts a framework for disciplinary action, including progressive disciplinary steps that may be taken, along with an appeal process. Id. at 33-35, ¶¶ C.2 - C.4. Regarding the appeal hearing, the manual states: “The personnel policy of Oneida County establishes the right to a hearing in the event of a discharge or demotion without attendant change in pay or suspension.” Id. at 35, ¶ V.C.4. The manual then specifies the various procedures relevant to such a hearing. Id.

         2. Timothy's Termination

         Timothy's employment was terminated in March 2014. The parties dispute the reasons for the termination. Timothy says she was fired in retaliation for reporting that her boss, Oneida County Prosecutor Dustin Smith, had misappropriated County funds. Smith claims that Timothy was fired for reasons related to her job performance.

         3. Communications Related to Timothy's Termination

         In the weeks leading to Timothy's March 2014 termination, the parties exchanged a series of written communications. Smith began the process on February 4, 2014, by sending Timothy a Notice of Pending Personnel Action. SOF ¶ 8; Dkt. 63-12. The notice enumerated various forms of alleged misconduct, which allegedly resulted in “violations of OCPPM [Oneida County's Personnel Policy Manual].” Id. at 1. The notice informed Timothy that Smith intended “to consider discipline consistent with Oneida County Personnel Policy.” Id. at 3. Timothy was further informed that she could respond to the notice in writing “and/or” meet with Smith on February 10, 2014 to discuss the issues. Id. at 1, 3.

         Timothy did not respond directly to Smith upon receiving this notice. Instead, on February 7, 2014, her lawyers sent a letter to the Oneida County Board of Commissioners, asking them to assist Timothy by “immediately withdrawing the [February 4, 2014] Notice . . . .” See Dkt. 63-13, at 2. The Commissioners did not respond to this letter, but shortly after this letter was sent to the Commissioners, Smith sent a letter to Timothy, suspending her without pay and postponing any February 10, 2014 meeting “until further notice.” Dkt. 63-14, at 1.

         A month later, on March 10, 2014, Smith sent another Notice of Pending Personnel Action to Timothy. See Dkt. 63-15. Timothy's lawyers responded in writing on March 13, 2014. Dkt. 63-16. Among other things, Timothy's lawyers accused Smith of retaliating against Timothy by sending a Notice of Pending Personnel Action shortly after Timothy had met with the Idaho State Police ‚Äúregarding her knowledge of Mr. Smith allegedly misappropriating county/public ...


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