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Bingham v. Jefferson County

United States District Court, D. Idaho

September 29, 2017

CASEY BINGHAM, Plaintiff,
v.
JEFFERSON COUNTY, Defendant.

          MEMORANDUM DECISION AND ORDER

          Honorable David C. Nye United States District Court

         I. INTRODUCTION

         Pending before the Court is Jefferson County's Motion for Summary Judgment. Dkt. 12. This Motion was originally filed on May 26, 2016; however, the Court granted extensions of time so that the parties could take depositions, conduct further discovery, and file supplemental briefs. The Motion became ripe on July 31, 2017. The Court heard oral argument on September 25, 2017, and took the matter under advisement. For the reasons set forth below the Court will GRANT in part and DENY in part.

         II. BACKGROUND

         A. Factual Background

         Plaintiff, Casey Bingham, began working for Jefferson County in 2006. During her tenure with the County, Bingham held various positions, for which certain certifications and licensures were required. For example, as a truck driver in the Road and Bridge Department, Bingham became a Road Master and Road Scholar, and while working with the Weed Department on a cost-share program, Bingham received her pesticide applicator license. Jefferson County paid for these trainings and certifications. During the time period giving rise to the events in question, Bingham was an administrative assistant for the Public Works Department within Jefferson County.

         During June and July of 2014, Bingham attended training workshops related to weed remediation and later participated in a weed-spraying project with a County vehicle. Plaintiff asserts that the trainings were approved and relevant to her job duties and necessary to keep her Road Master Certification current. Defendant claims that Bingham did not have prior authorization to attend the workshops, that they were not relevant to her position as an administrative assistant in the Public Works Department, and that any projects she undertook for the Road and Bridge Department were unauthorized and inappropriate because her time was not billed to that department.

         Also during July, Paul Snarr was appointed as the Public Works Administrator. The interim director who Snarr replaced, Jerry Ramirez, talked with Snarr regarding the training issues with Bingham. On July 17, 2014, Snarr prepared, but did not serve on Bingham, a disciplinary action form related to the unauthorized trainings and unauthorized use of County equipment.

         In September of 2014, Bingham, along with other Jefferson County employees, attended a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training in Baltimore, Maryland. After returning home, Bingham expressed concerns regarding the misuse of public funds on the trip by certain employees. In her estimation, some employees had misused funds by traveling earlier than the conference, staying later, and/or using County funds for personal expenses and sightseeing. Most of these comments were directed at Emily Kramer. Plaintiff refers to such conversations and statements as whistleblowing while Defendant characterizes them as gossip and rumors.

         On October 30, 2014, Bingham attended an ATV training. She claims she had pre-approval for the event and that her time card, which included the training, was signed by her supervisor. As with the first instance that gave rise to a disciplinary action form, Defendant states that there was no pre-approval for the course and that it had nothing to do with her job duties. As a result of this incident, a second disciplinary action form was filled out against Bingham.

         On November 17, 2014, Jefferson County served Bingham and the County Attorney with both disciplinary forms-for the July weed training and work, as well as the October ATV training. Jefferson County terminated Bingham the same day.

         On November 26, 2014, Bingham requested a “name-clearing” hearing pursuant to the Jefferson County Personnel Policy. Jefferson County held such a hearing on December 22, 2014; however, it did not change Jefferson County's position and Bingham's termination was upheld.

         B. Procedural Background

         On July 6, 2015, Bingham initiated this lawsuit against Jefferson County and Jefferson County Public Works Department. As a threshold matter the Court notes that while there is a Public Works Department within Jefferson County, it is not a separate legal entity from Jefferson County. The Defendant known as Jefferson County Public Works Department will therefore be removed from the caption of this case.[1] Jefferson County is the appropriate defendant, and by design includes the Public Works Department. As the Court noted during oral argument, in removing the Public Works Department, the Court is not expressing any opinion or making any ruling on the merits of the claims against the Public Works Department as they are claims against the County. The Court will, therefore, take up only the claims against Jefferson County and address each in turn.

         In her Complaint, Bingham alleges four causes of action. Count I asserts violations of the Idaho Public Employee Protection Act/Wrongful discharge. This is commonly referred to as a “whistleblower” claim. Count II is for the Deprivation of Plaintiff's Property and Liberty Interests without Due Process in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Count III is for violations of Article I, Section 9 of the Idaho Constitution and Count IV alleges violations of the First Amendment of the United States Constitution. Both Counts III and IV are free speech claims: one under the Idaho Constitution and one under the Federal Constitution.

         Jefferson County moved for summary judgment on all counts on May 26, 2016. Thereafter, the Honorable Ronald E. Bush issued various orders extending discovery deadlines so that additional depositions could be taken, extending the briefing schedule for this Motion, and striking various portions of counsel's declarations. Upon completion of the additional discovery, counsel filed supplemental briefing and this matter became ripe for review.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         Summary judgment is proper “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). This Court's role at summary judgment is not “to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial.” Zetwick v. Cty. of Yolo, 850 F.3d 436, 441 (9th Cir. 2017) (citation omitted).

         In considering a motion for summary judgment, this Court must “view[] the facts in the non-moving party's favor.” Id. To defeat a motion for summary judgment, the respondent need only present evidence upon which “a reasonable juror drawing all inferences in favor of the respondent could return a verdict in [his or her] favor.” Id. (citation omitted). Accordingly, this Court must enter summary judgment if a party “fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial.” Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). The respondent cannot simply rely on an unsworn affidavit or the pleadings to defeat a motion for summary judgment; rather the respondent must set forth the “specific facts, ” supported by evidence, with “reasonable particularity” that precludes summary judgment. Far Out Prods., Inc. v. Oskar, 247 F.3d 986, 997 (9th Cir. 2001).

         IV. ANALYSIS

         The Court notes at the outset that there appears to be numerous factual disputes in this case. One only need look at either party's statement of facts to see stark differences in the remembrance and recitation of the circumstances giving rise to this suit. As stated, the parties took additional depositions in this case. Both sides feel that these depositions bolster their respective positions.

         Although the Court does not weigh the evidence at this time, but only seeks to determine if there are true controverted issues of fact, incorporated in the briefing are statements taking from said depositions which blatantly contradict statements from both parties in this case, as well as other witness's testimonies. The facts, however, must be measured against the legal backdrop of the claims to determine if they survive at all (even if there are disputed factual issues). The Court will address each claim in turn.

         A. Count I - Whistleblower Claim

         In Count I of her Complaint, Bingham alleges that Jefferson County violated the Idaho Public Employee Protection Act and wrongfully discharged her for speaking out about the misuse of County funds. She claims she was essentially a “whistleblower” who was retaliated against.

         Idaho Code § 6-2104 provides:

An employer may not take adverse action against an employee because the employee, or a person authorized to act on behalf of the employee, communicates in good faith the existence of any waste of public funds, property or manpower, or a violation or suspected violation of a law, rule or regulation adopted under the ...

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