597 F.2d 1027 (5th Cir. 1979), 77-1873, Stegmaier v. Trammell

Docket Nº77-1873.
Citation597 F.2d 1027
Party NameBettye Keener STEGMAIER, etc., et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants, v. Jerry Pete TRAMMELL, etc., et al., Defendants-Appellees.
Case DateJuly 02, 1979
CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

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597 F.2d 1027 (5th Cir. 1979)

Bettye Keener STEGMAIER, etc., et al., Plaintiffs-Appellants,

v.

Jerry Pete TRAMMELL, etc., et al., Defendants-Appellees.

No. 77-1873.

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

July 2, 1979

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[Copyrighted Material Omitted]

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Leon Garmon, Gadsden, Ala., for plaintiffs-appellants.

Roger C. Suttle, James C. Stivender, Sp. Assts. for Atty. Gen., Gadsden, Ala., for defendants-appellees.

Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Alabama.

Before GODBOLD, SIMPSON and RONEY, Circuit Judges.

SIMPSON, Circuit Judge:

Appellant Bettye Keener Stegmaier commenced this action on November 11, 1976, against appellee Jerry Pete Trammell, then Circuit Clerk elect for Cherokee County, Alabama. Stegmaier sought general injunctive and other relief for alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988. She alleged that Trammell violated her rights to freedom of belief, speech and association by threatening to discharge her as Deputy Circuit Clerk because she failed to support him in the election for the office of Circuit Clerk. The district court, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(a)(2), ordered the trial of this action on the merits consolidated with the hearing scheduled on appellant's application for injunctive relief. In its Memorandum of Decision, dated January 13, 1977, the district

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court found appellant was entitled to none of the relief requested, holding that under Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), Trammell's replacement of Stegmaier was an "authorized patronage dismissal".

We affirm, holding that a public employee occupying a position of confidence, loyalty, and trust by virtue of her status as the single deputy and assistant to an elected official may be discharged solely on the ground of political affiliations without infringing her constitutional rights.

I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE

On March 18, 1974, appellant was appointed Deputy Circuit Clerk for Cherokee County, Alabama, by Fred Green, then Circuit Clerk. Green was defeated by appellee Trammell for the Democratic Party nomination for the position of Circuit Clerk in a primary runoff election held on May 25, 1976. In the November 2, 1976, general election Trammell was elected Circuit Clerk. One of his opponents was Green, who had run again as an independent.

After his election Trammell informed appellant that she would be replaced as Deputy Circuit Clerk on January 18, 1977, the date on which Trammell was to begin serving his elective term. 1 Thereafter, on November 11, 1976, appellant commenced this action seeking general injunctive and other relief for alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988. She alleged that Trammell violated her rights to freedom of belief, speech and association by threatening to discharge her because she failed to support him for the office of Circuit Clerk.

In his answer Trammell admitted that he informed appellant she would be replaced, denied each and every other allegation contained in the complaint, and noted that appellant had declined other employment in the office of the Circuit Clerk which he had tendered. Trammell raised several defenses. First, he asserted that as a newly elected Circuit Clerk, whose duties and responsibilities included judgment and policymaking decisions as well as the collection and safekeeping of public funds, he had the right to discharge appellant and appoint someone of his own choice. Second, Trammell contended that he was under a duty as the newly elected Circuit Clerk to select a qualified, competent individual in whom he had great confidence where his predecessor, Green, had been indicted for embezzlement. 2

By way of affidavit in support of his motion for summary judgment Trammell stated that he intended to appoint Dean Perron to the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk. Mrs. Perron was one of the original candidates in the Democratic primary for the office of Circuit Clerk. In Trammell's opinion Perron was "an experienced businesswoman, fully competent to act as Deputy Circuit Clerk," and a person in whom he had much trust and confidence.

Trammell, by his affidavit, again denied that he wanted to discharge appellant because she failed to support his candidacy for the office of Circuit Clerk, but he did "recognize" that it was Stegmaier's duty and obligation to remain loyal to her employer, Fred Green, and to support him for re-election. Trammell also asserted that the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk is a policymaking position, involving obligations of trust. Furthermore, he claimed that the Deputy Circuit Clerk, as the chief assistant to the Circuit Clerk, enjoys a confidential relationship with the Clerk. Finally, Trammell argued that since the Deputy Circuit Clerk has the responsibility of running the Clerk's office in the absence of the Clerk, the Deputy's duties included various policymaking

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decisions. 3 For all these reasons Trammell maintained that he had the legal right to select a Deputy Circuit Clerk of his own choice and preference.

This cause came on for hearing on January 10, 1977, pursuant to the district court's order of December 29, 1976, by which the trial of the action on the merits was advanced and consolidated with the hearing for interlocutory injunctive relief. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 65(a)(2). According to the terms of the district court's December 29th order, and as reflected by the record, the cause was submitted to the court for final decision on the merits upon conclusion of oral argument in the hearing for injunctive relief. The record does not reflect that any testimony was taken at this hearing, it appearing that the district court decided the issues raised on the basis of the appellant's complaint and the defendant's answer and affidavit in support of his motion for summary judgment.

The district court found that appellant was entitled to none of the relief requested. The court held that under Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), Trammell's replacement of appellant was an "authorized patronage dismissal". This conclusion was attained through a two-step analysis. First, the district court found that the position of Circuit Clerk was a "policymaking position" as that term was envisioned in Elrod. Second, the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk was a "policymaking position" by virtue of statutory language and judicial interpretation vesting the deputy with duties and authorities concurrent with the Clerk. Hence, the district court concluded, since a "policymaking position" is specifically susceptible to "lawful patronage dismissals" under Elrod, Stegmaier was entitled to no relief. 4

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While appellant raises thirteen points of asserted error only one basic question emerges whether the district court erred in finding that appellant fell within the policymaker exception in Elrod v. Burns, supra, and, therefore, was subject to patronage dismissal without infringement of her constitutional rights. We necessarily begin by reviewing Elrod and its progeny.

II. Elrod v. Burns AND ITS PROGENY

  1. Progenitor

    In Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), the Supreme Court of the United States held that patronage dismissals of public employees discharging employees on a partisan, political basis infringe first amendment interests. Respondents in Elrod, all Republicans, were employees 5 of the Cook County, Illinois Sheriff's Office under a Republican sheriff. When a Democratic sheriff assumed office respondents were discharged or threatened with discharge Solely because they did not support, were not members of, or had failed to obtain sponsorship by one of the leaders of the Democratic party. Thereafter, respondents brought suit against the Sheriff of Cook County, the Mayor of Chicago, as well as the Democratic Organization and Democratic County Central Committee of Cook County. Their complaint alleged that they were discharged or threatened with discharge solely for the reasons that they were not affiliated with or sponsored by the Democratic party. They sought declaratory, injunctive, and other relief for alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988.

    On review the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, 6 which had reversed the district court's dismissal of respondents' complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. Although five justices joined in the result, there was no majority opinion for the Court: Mr. Justice Brennan announced the Court's judgment in his plurality opinion, while Mr. Justice Stewart concurred in the result but refrained from joining in the plurality's "wide-ranging opinion". 427 U.S. at 374, 96 S.Ct. at 2690. 7

    The plurality opinion held that while patronage dismissals infringe first amendment interests, they could survive constitutional challenge if they furthered some "vital

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    government end by a means that is least restrictive of freedom of belief and association in achieving that end, and the benefit gained . . . outweigh(s) the loss of constitutionally protected rights". 427 U.S. at 363, 96 S.Ct. at 2685 (footnote omitted). Three government interests were offered by petitioners in Elrod in justification of patronage dismissals: the need to insure effective government and the efficiency of public employees, the need for political loyalty of employees, and the preservation of the democratic process. On the facts presented, the Elrod Court rejected each interest as inadequate to justify infringement of respondents'...

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