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Allred v. City of Carbon Hill

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Jasper Division

October 24, 2014

HEATH ALLRED, Plaintiff;
THE CITY OF CARBON HILL, ALABAMA, a municipal corporation, and JAMES RICHARDSON, Defendants.


L. SCOTT COOGLER, District Judge.

Plaintiff Heath Allred ("Allred") brought this action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and Ala. Code § 11-43-230 et seq., seeking damages based on his non-reappointment as the Carbon Hill police chief. Before the Court is Defendants City of Carbon Hill ("Carbon Hill") and James Richardson's ("Richardson") motion for summary judgment. (Doc. 38.) The issues have been fully briefed and are ripe for review. For the reasons stated below, summary judgment is due to be granted with respect to Allred's procedural due process and wrongful termination claims, and denied with respect to his freedom of association claims.

I. Background

Allred was appointed as the Carbon Hill police chief on August 19, 2010. Carbon Hill did not specify the length of Allred's employment when it appointed him. After completing his probationary period, Allred was told that Carbon Hill's Personnel Rules and Regulations ("Personnel Rules") governed his employment. The Personnel Rules require notice and a hearing for suspensions over three days, demotions, and dismissals.

In 2012, Allred's professional relationship with Richardson began to weaken. Allred's wife, Jacque Roberson Allred, announced that she was challenging Defendant Richardson in Carbon Hill's mayoral race. Allred claims that he received a phone call from Ken Guin ("Guin"), Richardson's attorney, in February of 2012. Guin allegedly told Allred that his job would suffer should Allred's wife continue her bid for mayor. Allred supported his wife in the mayoral race, participating in occasional campaign meetings and helping build campaign signs. However, Allred claims that he never supported his wife's candidacy while in uniform or while performing his official duties as police chief.

Richardson ultimately won the mayoral race, narrowly beating Allred's wife in a run-off election on October 6, 2012. Richardson replaced outgoing mayor Chris Hart in early November 2012. On November 5, 2012 Richardson and Allred met privately before a Carbon Hall City Council ("Council") meeting. Richardson told Allred that he was ending Allred's employment as Carbon Hill police chief. Richardson allegedly cited Allred's wife as the reason he was not reappointing Allred, as Richardson told Allred that "this campaign has been dirty, " when Allred asked why he was being terminated.[1] ( See Doc. 39-2, at 22.)

Following this discussion, the Council appointed a new police chief at Richardson's suggestion. Richardson presided over the session and participated in the voting. The Council decided to retain the individuals serving as other city officials, making Allred the only city official not reappointed. Allred's attorney asked when Allred should report for duty as a regular employee of the Carbon Hill Police Department. The Council went into executive session to discuss the issue, and the city attorney told Allred after the session that Allred was no longer employed by Carbon Hill. Allred claims that Richardson initially suggested that Allred "didn't have anything to worry about" with respect to keeping his job, but that Richardson changed his mind after the election. ( See Doc. 39-2, at 23.) However, Allred acknowledges that no one ever told him that his appointment as police chief was permanent, nor that Allred would not have to be reappointed following the election of a new mayor and city council.

Allred filed this action in state court on March 28, 2013, and it was removed to this Court on May 16, 2013. Carbon Hill and Richardson previously filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim, and Richardson further argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity with respect to the alleged constitutional violations. This Court found that Allred pleaded sufficient facts to withstand a motion to dismiss, and also refused to grant qualified immunity to Richardson since there was a possibility that Allred's complaint presented "clearly established" violations of law. Carbon Hill and Richardson now bring a motion for summary judgment and Richardson reasserts the defense of qualified immunity.

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 judgment, "[s]ummary judgment procedure is properly regarded not as a disfavored procedural shortcut, but rather as an integral part of the Federal Rules as a whole." Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 327(1986).

III. Discussion

Allred brings claims against Carbon Hill and Richardson under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violations of his constitutional rights of procedural due process and freedom of association. He also brings a state law wrongful termination claim under Ala. Code § 11-43-230. This Court will examine each in turn.

A. Procedural Due Process Violation

One of Allred's § 1983 claims alleges a pre-deprivation violation of procedural due process. In other words, Allred argues that he was fired as police chief without first being provided a "constitutionally adequate" opportunity to rebut the rationale for the termination. A procedural due process claim requires that a plaintiff show "(1) a deprivation of a constitutionally-protected liberty or property interest; (2) state action; and (3) constitutionally-inadequate process.'" Catron v. City of St. Petersburg, 658 F.3d 1260, 1266 (11th Cir. 2011) (quoting Grayden v. Rhodes, 345 F.3d 1225, 1232 (11th Cir. 2003)). Due process typically requires that any deprivation of "life, liberty, or property be preceded by notice and the opportunity for a hearing." Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542 (1985) (internal quotation marks omitted); see also id. ("We have described the root requirement' of the Due Process Clause as being that an individual be given an opportunity for a hearing before he is deprived of any significant property interest.'" (quoting Boddie v. Connecticut, 401 U.S. 371, 379 (1971))). Carbon Hill and Richardson concede that Allred was not provided any pre-termination opportunity to contest the alleged deprivation. Thus, Allred's procedural due process claim turns on whether he had a constitutionally-protected interest in continued employment as the Carbon Hill police chief.

Restrictions on a public employer's ability to terminate an employee can create a constitutionally-protected interest in continued employment. See Ross v. Clayton Cnty., Ga., 173 F.3d 1305, 1307 (11th Cir. 1999) (stating that "[g]enerally, a public employee has a property interest in continued employment if state law or local ordinance in any way limits the power of the appointing body to dismiss an employee" (internal quotation marks omitted)); see also Warren v. Crawford 927 F.2d 559, 562 (11th Cir. 1991) (stating that "[s]tate law determines whether a public employee has a property interest in his or her job")). Allred points to Ala. Code § 11-43-230 as the state law creating a property interest in continued employment. Section 11-43-230 states that "[e]very municipality shall provide a predisciplinary hearing prior to any suspension or termination of its law enforcement officers." Ala. Code § 11-43-230(a) (2014). Section 11-43-231 defines "law enforcement officer" to include police chiefs, but excludes from the definition "any person whose term of office has expired." See Ala. Code § 11-43-231 (2014).

Carbon Hill and Richardson argue that Allred's term as police chief did expire with the election of the mayoral board, and that he therefore has no constitutionally-protected interest in continued employment under Ala. Code § 11-43-230. Defendants direct the Court to Ala. Code. § 11-43-4, which states that:

In cities having a population of less than 6, 000 and in towns, the council shall elect a clerk and fix the salary and term of office, and may determine by ordinance the other officers of the city or town, their salary, the manner of their election and the terms of office.... The clerk and such other officers elected by the council shall serve until their successor or successors are elected and qualified.

Ala. Code § 11-43-4 (2014) (emphasis added). In addition, Ala. Code § 11-43-46 states that the Council should fix municipal officers' terms, including those of police chiefs, so that they do "not [] exceed that of the mayor." See Ala. Code § 11-43-46 (2014).[2]

Case law interpreting Ala. Code § 11-43-4 is sparse. However, under Alabama law, courts are to interpret statutory terms in a manner that effectuates the intent of the legislature, as expressed in the statute itself. See Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Ala., Inc. v. Nielsen, 714 So.2d 293, 296 (Ala. 1998). The plain language of the statute at issue is the primary tool for discerning legislative intent. See Clark v. Riley, 595 F.3d 1258, 1266 (11th Cir. 2010) (stating that "determining legislative intent begins with the plain language of the statute" (citing IMED Corp. v. Sys. Eng'g Assocs. Corp., 602 So.2d 344, 346 (Ala. 1992))). A court should deviate from the ordinary ...

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