United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division
L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.
Plaintiff Adam Hadder ("Hadder") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Ala. Code § 36-25-24, seeking damages based on his termination as a Walker County sheriff's deputy. Before the Court are Defendants Walker County and Sheriff John Mark Tirey's ("Tirey") renewed motion to dismiss (Doc. 11) and motion for summary judgment (Doc. 15). Tirey also raises the defense of qualified immunity. The issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, Defendants' motion for summary judgment is due to be granted with respect to the § 1983 claim. The remaining state law claim is to be dismissed without prejudice. Defendants' renewed motion to dismiss is to be denied as moot.
Hadder worked as a Walker County sheriff's deputy for approximately fifteen years. At all times relevant to this suit, Defendant Tirey was the elected sheriff of Walker County. Hadder was a member of the Narcotics Enforcement Team ("NET") while working as a Walker County sheriff's deputy. NET officers investigated drug-related offenses, and routinely seized both drugs and cash from suspects. The NET had a bank account to fund its operations that included forfeited money from convicted suspects. Hadder claims that NET director Paul Kilgore ("Kilgore") misused NET funds by paying for personal expenses with the account.
Hadder further claims that his job status began to suffer once he took steps to report Kilgore's mishandling of cash seized as part of a June 2010 arrest. After the NET completed its portion of the investigation related to the arrest, the Federal Bureau of Investigation ("FBI") sought to take over the case to initiate federal prosecution. However, the FBI encountered problems when attempting to obtain the cash from Kilgore. Eventually, a grand jury subpoenaed the Sheriff's Department in an effort to have the cash evidence delivered to the FBI. After the subpoena was delivered, Hadder told Sheriff Tirey that he suspected Kilgore of wrongdoing. According to Hadder, Tirey told him not to report his suspicions to anyone else.
In late 2011, Kilgore finally turned over the cash to the FBI. However, the cash was delivered to the FBI in denominations that apparently did not match the description of the seized cash, which prompted Hadder to tell the FBI that he suspected Kilgore of wrongdoing. The NET was shut down on January 23, 2012 following an FBI search of the NET offices. Kilgore retired on January 30, 2012, and committed suicide shortly thereafter. Hadder claims that his relationship with Tirey further deteriorated after Kilgore's death, as Tirey blamed him for Kilgore's suicide.
On August 16, 2012, a formal citizen's complaint was filed against Hadder after Hadder arrested an individual that attempted to serve him with process. It was the second citizen's complaint filed against Hadder in less than a year. Tirey suspended Hadder with pay while the complaints were investigated. On September 4, 2012, Hadder filed a grievance with the Walker County Civil Service Commission. Hadder argued in his grievance letter that the citizen complaints were actually filed at the direction of a Walker County attorney who held a grudge against Hadder due to a 2009 arrest. Hadder now alleges that Tirey conspired with this attorney to file the citizen complaints, and that the citizen complaints were actually a pretext to remove Hadder from his position following the Kilgore incident. (Doc. 8, at ¶ 24.)
On September 13, 2012, Hadder received a letter of proposed termination from Tirey. The letter informed Hadder that he had a right to request a hearing, as well as a right to respond in writing to any allegations. (Doc. 16-1, at 17.) Hadder and Tirey scheduled a hearing for September 19, 2012. Hadder appeared at the Sheriff's Department offices for the hearing, but Tirey was sick and asked that the hearing be rescheduled. The hearing was rescheduled for September 21, 2012. Tirey sent Hadder a text message informing Hadder of the rescheduled date and time. Hadder initially agreed by text message to the date of the rescheduled hearing, but later asked that the hearing to be rescheduled so that his attorney could be present.
Tirey rescheduled the pre-termination hearing for September 27, 2012. The Sheriff's Department attempted to hand-deliver to Hadder a letter stating the new date and time. However, due to the fact that Hadder's property was gated and Hadder's dogs were roaming the property freely, the Sheriff's Department was unable to hand-deliver the letter. Instead, the individual attempting delivery left the notice on the gate and spoke in-person to Mr. Hadder's father concerning the notice, as Hadder's parents lived next door. Tirey also sent Hadder a text message telling him the date and time of the third rescheduled hearing. Hadder claims never to have received this text message.
Hadder did not attend the rescheduled hearing, and instead wrote a letter to Tirey. In the letter, Hadder stated that he was "responding to [Tirey's] allegations in writing" and had already "provided [Tirey] with sufficient documentation of [Hadder's] total innocence." ( Id. at 27.) The letter further stated that Hadder received no notice of the hearing, but was nonetheless aware of the correct date and time due to "the onslaught of media talk and the rumor mill." ( Id. ) The letter closed with Hadder telling Tirey to "please consider this my response to your wrongful allegations." ( Id. ) Hadder was terminated on September 27, 2012 after he failed to appear for his hearing. Tirey says that he reviewed this letter, as well as all other materials submitted by Hadder, before making the final decision to fire Hadder. The Walker County Civil Service Board affirmed Hadder's termination following a three-day hearing.
Hadder filed this action on March 31, 2014. Hadder's § 1983 claim is based on an alleged violation of pre-termination procedural due process. Walker County and Tirey previously filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and Tirey further argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the § 1983 claim. This Court found that Hadder failed to adequately plead a violation of pre-termination procedural due process, but gave Hadder leave to amend his complaint. The Court also refused to grant qualified immunity to Tirey at the time, since allowing Hadder an opportunity to amend his complaint was not necessarily futile. Hadder filed his amended complaint on June 10, 2014. Walker County and Tirey now bring a renewed motion to dismiss and a motion for summary judgement.
II. Standard of Review
Summary judgment is appropriate "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). A fact is "material" if it "might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248 (1986); see also Avenue CLO Fund, Ltd. v. Bank of Am., NA, 723 F.3d 1287, 1294 (11th Cir. 2013). There is a "genuine dispute" as to a material fact "if the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson, 477 U.S. at 248. The trial judge should not weigh the evidence but must simply determine whether there are any genuine issues that should be resolved at trial. Id. at 249.
In considering a motion for summary judgment, trial courts must give deference to the non-moving party by "considering all of the evidence and the inferences it may yield in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party." McGee v. Sentinel Offender Servs., LLC, 719 F.3d 1236, 1242 (11th Cir. 2013) (citing Ellis v. England, 432 F.3d 1321, 1325 (11th Cir. 2005)). However, "unsubstantiated assertions alone are not enough to withstand a motion for summary judgment." Rollins v. TechSouth, Inc., 833 F.2d 1525, 1529 (11th Cir. 1987). In making a motion for summary judgment, "the moving party has the burden of either negating an essential element of the nonmoving party's case or showing that there is no evidence to prove a fact necessary to the nonmoving party's case." Id. Although the trial courts must use caution when granting motions for summary ...