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Langford v. Hale County, Alabama Commission

United States District Court, S.D. Alabama, Northern Division

June 26, 2014

ANN LANGFORD, Plaintiff,
v.
HALE COUNTY, ALABAMA COMMISSION, et al., Defendants.

ORDER

KRISTI K. DuBOSE, District Judge.

I. Analysis

After due and proper consideration of the issues raised, and there having been no objections filed, the Report and Recommendation (Doc. 16) of the Magistrate Judge made under 28 U.S.C. § 636(b)(1)(B) and dated May 20, 2014, is ADOPTED in part and revised in part, as follows:

The facts are, briefly, as follows. Plaintiff Ann Langford is a 59 year-old Caucasian woman, residing in Hale County, Alabama, formerly employed as the Chief Clerk of the Hale County Probate Office (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 4, 8). On March 11, 2013, Defendant Crawford terminated Langford's employment without prior notice or hearing (Doc. 1, ¶¶ 7, 22-23); Langford's replacement was a younger Black woman ( id at ¶ 28). Langford filed a grievance with the Commission challenging her termination; the grievance was denied on May 1, 2013 without a hearing ( id. at ¶¶ 5, 33-34). Plaintiff appealed the denial to the Personnel Review Board, [1] but her objections were rejected ( id. at ¶¶ 35, 37). Langford filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and, on November 22, 2013, was granted a "Right to Sue Letter" to pursue this action in Court ( id. at ¶ 38; Doc. 1, Exhibit A).

On February 18, 2014, Langford filed this action, claiming that the previously-named Defendants: (1) violated her Fourteenth Amendment Due Process rights; (2) violated her Fourteenth Amendment Equal Protection rights; (3) violated her First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and political association; (4) discriminated against her because of her race; (5) discriminated against her because of her age; (6) discriminated against her because of her race;[2] and (7) retaliated against her for pursuing protected activities (Doc. 1).[3] Defendants subsequently filed this Partial Motion to Dismiss (Docs. 7, 10); Langford filed a response (Doc. 13) to which the Defendants have replied (Doc. 14).

The Court notes, initially, that "[w]hen considering a motion to dismiss, all facts set forth in the plaintiff's complaint are to be accepted as true and the court limits its consideration to the pleadings and exhibits attached thereto.'" Grossman v. Nationsbank, N.A., 225 F.3d 1228, 1231 (11th Cir. 2000) (quoting GSW, Inc. v. Long County, 999 F.2d 1508, 1510 (11th Cir. 1993)). In order to state a claim for relief, the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure state that a pleading must contain "a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The U.S. Supreme Court explained that the purpose of the rule was to "give the defendant fair notice of what the plaintiff's claim is and the grounds upon which it rests." Conley v. Gibson, 355 U.S. 41, 47 (1957).[4] While factual allegations do not have to be detailed, they must contain more than "labels and conclusions;" "a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause will not do." Bell Atlantic Corporation v. Twombley, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007) (citing Papasan v. Allain, 478 U.S. 265, 286 (1986)). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level." Id. (citations omitted). "Facts that are merely consistent with' the plaintiff's legal theory will not suffice when, without some further factual enhancement [they] stop short of the line between possibility and plausibility of "entitle[ment] to relief."'" Weissman v. National Association of Securities Dealers, Inc., 500 F.3d 1293, 1310 (11th Cir. 2007) (quoting Twombley, 550 U.S. 557) (quoting DM Research, Inc. v. College of American Pathologists, 170 F.3d 53, 56 (1st Cir. 1999)). "Only a complaint that states a plausible claim for relief survives a motion to dismiss." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 679 (2009) (citing Twombley, 550 U.S. at 556). "Where the well-pleaded facts do not permit the court to infer more than the mere possibility of conduct, the complaint has alleged-but it has not show[n]'-that the pleader is entitled to relief.'" Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 679 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2)). As noted by the Supreme Court, Plaintiffs must "nudge[] their claims across the line from conceivable to plausible[; otherwise, ] their complaint must be dismissed." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 570. It is noted, however, that a complaint may be dismissed, under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), "on the basis of a dispositive issue of law." Executive 100, Inc. v. Martin County, 922 F.2d 1536, 1539 (11th Cir.) (citing Neitzke v. Williams, 490 U.S. 319 (1989)), cert. denied, 502 U.S. 810 (1991).

Defendants first seek dismissal of a portion of Langford's third claim, a claim that Defendants violated her First Amendment right to freedom of political association.[5] They argue that her work as Chief Clerk of the Probate Court is a political patronage job and that dismissal is not unconstitutional on that basis (Doc. 10, pp. 4-6). As support for that argument, Defendants have cited two different Alabama statutes, the first of which defines the powers of the probate court chief clerk:

(a) The chief clerk shall have the following powers:
(1) To issue letters testamentary, of administration and of guardianship, where there is no contest.
(2) To administer oaths relating to the business of the court and to take and certify acknowledgments and proof of instruments authorized to be recorded.
(3) To solemnize matrimony, approve bonds and appoint guardians ad litem.
(4) To admit wills to probate and record and to pass and allow accounts of executors, administrators and guardians, where there is no contest.
(5) To do all other acts and things and perform all other duties, ministerial and judicial, where there is no contest, that the probate judge may do and perform.
(b) All of the official acts of such chief clerk must be performed in the name of the probate judge, except when there is a vacancy in that office.

Ala. Code § 12-13-14. The second statute states as follows:

Whenever a vacancy shall occur in the office of the probate judge, the chief clerk in that office, appointed and qualified as authorized by law, shall, during such vacancy and until the qualification of a lawful successor, perform all the duties of that office which he is authorized by law to perform when there is no vacancy, but must not receive money on decrees or executions or become the custodian of trust funds pertaining to the court. He may make all necessary orders for the continuances of cases and proceedings pending in the court.
All such duties are to be performed, during such vacancy, by such chief clerk in his own name as clerk of the probate court, and he is entitled to the lawful fees therefor. For his official acts under this article, such chief clerk and the sureties on his bond to the probate judge shall be liable to persons injured according to the legal effect of official bonds as declared by statute.

Ala. Code § 12-13-15.

The Court notes that the chief clerk's responsibilities, listed in the first statute, do not include discretionary duties; specifically, three subsections of the first section of the statute preclude the clerk from performing certain tasks if the parties have a dispute. In the second statute, the chief clerk gains no responsibilities when the judge's position is vacant; rather, the clerk is allowed to order that whatever work arises-other than what the clerk already has the authority to do-be continued. These statutes do not provide support for the Defendants' argument that the chief clerk is the alter ego of the probate judge.

The Court further finds that the cases cited by Defendants do not lend support to their argument. In one such case, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a deputy sheriff is the alter ego of the sheriff. Terry v. Cook, 866 F.2d 373, 377 (11th Cir. 1989) ( citing Mosely v. Kennedy, 17 So.2d 536, 537 (Ala. 1944)). The Terry Court further noted, though, that "[a]ny transaction within the scope of the sheriff's duties may be acted upon by his deputy, " Terry, 866 F.2d at 377 ( citing Ramsey v. Strobach, 52 Ala. 513, 515 (1875)).

Under Terry, the deputy can do anything the sheriff can do. However, the chief clerk is restricted from doing everything that the probate judge can do by statute. This does not further Defendants' argument.

Defendants also cite Underwood v. Harkins, 698 F.3d 1335, 1343-44 (11th Cir. 2012), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___ , 134 S.Ct. 99 (2013), in which the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals held that a deputy superior court clerk performed the identical tasks as the court clerk and that the clerk could dismiss the deputy clerk from that position for having run against the clerk in the political party's primary election. Again, however, the duties of the two positions were the same; that is not the circumstance in this action. More significant though is the fact that Underwood is a case based on Georgia law; Defendants have failed to demonstrate the relevance of Georgia law to this action.

Defendants' Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 7) is due to be denied as to Langford's third claim. Defendants have not even argued-much less demonstrated-that Langford has failed to set out the necessary facts to proceed with her claim that Defendants violated her First Amendment right to freedom of political association. Instead, Defendants have attempted to prove that Langford's claim is not viable as a matter of law. However, the laws brought forth to support their argument, if anything, provide support for Plaintiff's argument that this claim should not be dismissed.

Defendants also seek to have the Court dismiss Plaintiff's claim that her due process rights were violated. The first argument raised is that Langford did not have a property interest in her job (Doc. 10, pp. 6-9).

The United States Supreme Court has noted that the "Fourteenth Amendment's procedural protection of property is a safeguard of the security of interests that a person has already acquired in specific benefits." Board of Regents of State Colleges v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 576 (1972). The Court went on to hold that "[p]roperty interests [] are not created by the Constitution. Rather they are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law-rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlement to those benefits." Board of Regents, 408 U.S. at 577. The Court notes that "State law defines the parameters of a plaintiff's property interest for section 1983 purposes. Whether state law has created a property interest is a legal question for the court ...


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