566 F.3d 381 (4th Cir. 2009), 08-1437, Fields v. Prater

Docket Nº:08-1437, 08-1471.
Citation:566 F.3d 381
Opinion Judge:WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:
Party Name:Tammy R. FIELDS, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. Tolbert PRATER; Laura Elkins; Emogene Elswick; Ruby Ratliff Hale; Harold Thornsbury; Judy Holland, Defendants-Appellants, and W. Pat Justus; Carroll Branham; Eddie Lindsay; David Ratliff; William P. Harris; Buchanan County, Defendants. Tammy R. Fields, Plaintiff-Appellee, v. W. Pat Justus; Carroll Branham; Ed
Attorney:Henry Keuling-Stout, Keuling-Stout, PC, Big Stone Gap, Virginia; Jim H. Guynn, Jr., Guynn, Memmer & Dillon, PC, Salem, Virginia, for Appellants. Timothy Worth McAfee, McAfee Law Firm, PC, Norton, Virginia, for Appellee.
Judge Panel:Before WILLIAMS, Chief Judge, WILKINSON, Circuit Judge, and DAVID A. FABER, Senior United States District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation. Judge WILKINSON wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge WILLIAMS and Senior Judge FABER joined.
Case Date:May 21, 2009
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 381

566 F.3d 381 (4th Cir. 2009)

Tammy R. FIELDS, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

Tolbert PRATER; Laura Elkins; Emogene Elswick; Ruby Ratliff Hale; Harold Thornsbury; Judy Holland, Defendants-Appellants,

and

W. Pat Justus; Carroll Branham; Eddie Lindsay; David Ratliff; William P. Harris; Buchanan County, Defendants.

Tammy R. Fields, Plaintiff-Appellee,

v.

W. Pat Justus; Carroll Branham; Eddie Lindsay; William P. Harris; David Ratliff, Defendants-Appellants,

and

Buchanan County; Tolbert Prater; Laura Elkins; Emogene Elswick; Ruby Ratliff Hale; Harold Thornsbury; Judy Holland, Defendants.

Nos. 08-1437, 08-1471.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

May 21, 2009

Argued: March 25, 2009.

Page 382

Henry Keuling-Stout, Keuling-Stout, PC, Big Stone Gap, Virginia; Jim H. Guynn, Jr., Guynn, Memmer & Dillon, PC, Salem, Virginia, for Appellants.

Timothy Worth McAfee, McAfee Law Firm, PC, Norton, Virginia, for Appellee.

Before WILLIAMS, Chief Judge, WILKINSON, Circuit Judge, and DAVID A. FABER, Senior United States District Judge for the Southern District of West Virginia, sitting by designation.

Page 383

Reversed and remanded by published opinion.

Judge WILKINSON wrote the opinion, in which Chief Judge WILLIAMS and Senior Judge FABER joined.

OPINION

WILKINSON, Circuit Judge:

This appeal arises out of plaintiff Tammy Fields's suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which alleges that defendants conspired to prevent her from being hired as the local director of a county department of social services (" DSS" ) because of her political affiliation and in violation of her First Amendment rights. Defendants have appealed the district court's denial of their motions for summary judgment on the basis of qualified immunity. We conclude that the First Amendment prohibits consideration of political affiliation in hiring decisions for positions like the one at issue here. To hold otherwise would impose prohibitive costs on the exercise of associative rights and political speech. However, because this conclusion was not clearly established at the time of the decision under existing law, we think the defendants entitled to the qualified immunity they seek.

I.

A.

This case concerns the selection of a local director for the Buchanan County Department of Social Services (" BCDSS" ). It is thus necessary to explain briefly at the outset the Commonwealth of Virginia's system for administering social services. Virginia's social services apparatus serves a number of functions related to public assistance and child welfare, such as the provision of financial assistance and medical care to the indigent, domestic violence prevention, and the enforcement of court-ordered child support payments. This system has both state and local components. At the state level, the Governor appoints the Commissioner of Social Services as well as the nine members of the State Board of Social Services. Va.Code § § 63.2-201, 63.2-215. As the head of the Virginia Department of Social Services (" VDSS" ), the Commissioner supervises the administration of social services throughout the state. Id. § 63.2-203. The State Board advises the Commissioner, but also has the power to pass regulations which are binding throughout the state and which the Commissioner must enforce. Id. § § 63.2-203, 63.2-216, 63.2-217.

Subject to the supervision of the Commissioner and in accordance with the regulations passed by the State Board, local boards of social services and their corresponding local departments of social services administer social services at the local level. Id. § § 63.2-313, 63.2-324, 63.2-332. Local departments can serve a single county, a single city, or some combination of counties and cities. Id. § 63.2-324. Here, we are only concerned with the laws governing local departments serving single counties. A local director of social services supervises the local department; the director is chosen by, and serves at the pleasure of, the county's local board. Id. § § 63.2-324-63.2-326. Local directors are also considered the agents of the Commissioner. Id. § 63.2-333. Local directors who do not meet personnel standards established by the State Board can be removed by the Commissioner. Id. § 63.2-327.

Although the local boards delegate responsibility to their local departments, the boards are the entities ultimately responsible for administering the laws related to social services in their respective jurisdictions. In addition to selecting a director, the duties of a local board include making local policy decisions and exercising discretion

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over funding decisions. Under state law and regulations adopted by the State Board, all DSS employees are to be hired on the basis of merit, not political affiliation. See id. § § 63.2-100, 63.2-326; Va. Admin. Code § § 40-675-30, 40-675-130, 40-675-180.

The governing body of a county determines the composition of the county's local board. Va.Code § 63.2-302. The county may either designate one local government official as the board, or appoint an administrative board consisting of three or more residents of the county. Id. If the county's governing body selects the first option, it must also appoint an advisory board, consisting of between five and thirteen members, to aid the government official who has been designated the local board. Id. § 63.2-305.

B.

We turn now to the facts at hand. Plaintiff Tammy Fields and her husband have been active supporters of the Republican Party in Buchanan County for many years. Fields started working for the BCDSS in 1995 as a social worker. In 1997, she was promoted to office manager, a position she still holds. As office manager, she deals with issues related to payroll, insurance, and taxes.

In 2006, the BCDSS local director position became open when the previous director retired. The Buchanan County Board of Supervisors (" BOS" ), the county's governing body, created an interviewing board to evaluate prospective candidates for local director. Fields and six other candidates applied. The interviewing board ranked the seven candidates; Fields received the highest score, while a candidate named Judy Holland received the lowest score. Tony Fritz, the Regional Director for the VDSS, assisted in the interviewing process.

At this time, a local government official was serving as the local administrative board and several other individuals served on an advisory board, as required by state law. For reasons that on the record are unclear, on January 8, 2007, the BOS passed a resolution dissolving the existing administrative and advisory boards and creating a new, seven-member administrative board (" the Local Board" ). The resolution was passed unanimously by the BOS, and each of the seven members of the BOS chose someone from their respective supervisory districts to serve on the Local Board. Shortly thereafter, the newly-created Local Board interviewed three candidates, including Fields and Holland. The Local Board subsequently hired Holland.

Fields alleges that the Local Board's hiring decision was based on the applicants' party affiliations. According to Fields, Holland was the only applicant politically affiliated with the Democratic Party. She alleges that five members of the Local Board affiliated with the Democratic Party (Laura Elkins, Emogene Elswick, Ruby Ratliff Hale, Tolbert Prater, and Harold Thornsbury) conspired with five members of the BOS who are currently or formerly affiliated with the Democratic Party (Carroll Branham, William P. Harris, W. Pat Justus, Eddie Lindsay, and David Ratliff) to prevent Fields from being hired, and that their reason for doing so was Fields's support of the Republican Party. Fields further claims that the BOS members chose to create the new administrative board so that they could appoint Democratic...

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