Curtis v. Christian County, Missouri, 062620 FED8, 19-1213

Docket Nº:19-1213, 19-1214
Opinion Judge:SMITH, Chief Judge.
Party Name:Robert A. Curtis Plaintiff- Appellee v. Christian County, Missouri; Brad Cole, Christian County, Missouri Sheriff, in his Individual and Official Capacities Defendants - Appellants Ray Weter; Hosea Bilyeu; Ralph Phillips Defendant's, Frank Timothy Bruce Plaintiff- Appellee v. Brad Cole, Christian County, Missouri Sheriff, in his Individual and ...
Judge Panel:Before SMITH, Chief Judge, COLLOTON and STRAS, Circuit Judges.
Case Date:June 26, 2020
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit

Robert A. Curtis Plaintiff- Appellee


Christian County, Missouri; Brad Cole, Christian County, Missouri Sheriff, in his Individual and Official Capacities Defendants - Appellants

Ray Weter; Hosea Bilyeu; Ralph Phillips Defendant's,

Frank Timothy Bruce Plaintiff- Appellee


Brad Cole, Christian County, Missouri Sheriff, in his Individual and Official Capacities; Christian County, Missouri Defendants - Appellants

Ray Weter; Hosea Bilyeu; Ralph Phillips Defendants

Nos. 19-1213, 19-1214

United States Court of Appeals, Eighth Circuit

June 26, 2020

Submitted: February 12, 2020

Appeals from United States District Court for the Western District of Missouri - Springfield

Before SMITH, Chief Judge, COLLOTON and STRAS, Circuit Judges.

SMITH, Chief Judge.

Sheriff Brad Cole of the Christian County Sheriffs Office ("Sheriff's Office") appeals from the district court's denial of qualified immunity on First Amendment wrongful-discharge claims brought by former Deputy Sheriffs Timothy Bruce and Robert Curtis. Brace's and Curtis's complaints alleged that Cole, the newly elected sheriff, discharged them for political reasons in violation of their First Amendment rights. Cole argues that political loyalty is an appropriate requirement under Missouri law; therefore, he did not violate Brace's and Curtis's constitutional rights in discharging them. We agree. Accordingly, we reverse the district court's denial of qualified immunity and remand for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

I. Background

The Christian County Commission scheduled a special election on August 4, 2015, to elect a new sheriff after Sheriff Joey Kyle resigned from office after pleading guilty to violating federal law. Four candidates ran for sheriff in the general election, including Brad Cole (Republican candidate) and Keith Mills (independent candidate). Mills was the only candidate who was employed by the Sheriff's Office. Between Kyle's resignation and the election, Dwight McNiel served as the interim sheriff.

As the only internal candidate, Mills had the support of many of the Sheriff's Office's employees. Deputy Sheriff Robert Curtis publically endorsed Mills. In support of Mills, Curtis talked to people, knocked on doors, handed out literature, posted on Facebook, and put up a yard sign at his residence.

Like Curtis, Deputy Sheriff Tim Bruce also publically supported Mills for sheriff. In support of Mills, Bruce posted on Facebook, told friends and family to vote for Mills, and loaned Mills a flatbed trailer for Mills to use in a public parade. Bruce also told three or four people in the Sheriff's Office that "[i]f you elect Brad Cole[, ] you're trading one crook for another." Pl.'s Sugg, in Opp'n to Defs.' Mot. for Summ. J. at 19, ¶ 61, Bruce v. Cole, No.6:17-cv-03073-SRB (W.D.Mo.Dec.21, 2018), ECF No. 174. Bruce and Cole did not get along. Bruce "never made any bones about [his] feelings for Brad Cole." Id. at 35, ¶ 93 (alteration in original).

One week before the election, McNiel told Bruce that he "need[ed] to be on the right side to keep [his] job and the right side is Brad Cole." Id. at 17, ¶ 55. One of McNiel's interim command staff members, Steve Haefling, made "similar comments 2 or 3 times about supporting the right candidate for 2 to 3 weeks before the election." Id. at 56, ¶ 180. And, prior to the election, Cole would come to the Sheriff's Office and meet with the interim staff, after which "the interim staff would state that the deputies had a one in four chance of keeping their jobs." Id. at 56, ¶ 178.

Cole won the election on August 4, 2015. On August 5, 2015, Bruce called Cole to discuss his employment. Bruce was concerned about his job based on what McNiel and Haefling had told him. Bruce told Cole that he had supported his opponent, Mills. He also asked Cole about the rumor that Cole was going to fire employees who had supported Mills. Cole replied that he would not fire Bruce.

On August 7, 2015, Cole assumed the duties of sheriff and terminated both Curtis and Bruce. At that time, Curtis was a sergeant supervising the Sheriff's Office's information technology department, and Bruce worked as a detective. Cole knew both Curtis and Bruce had supported Mills at the time that he fired them. Both Curtis and Bruce had been promoted to their respective positions of sergeant and detective by Cole's predecessor just months prior to their termination.

Missouri law provides that "[a]ny full-time deputy sheriff upon dismissal shall be furnished with a written notice of the grounds for the dismissal." Mo. Rev. Stat. § 57.275.1. Cole did not provide written notice for the dismissal of Bruce and Curtis or give them an opportunity to request a hearing. See id. The Sheriff's Office also had written policies concerning the discipline and termination of employees. Cole testified he did not read or apply the discipline policy when terminating Bruce and Curtis.

Curtis and Bruce brought separate lawsuits under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging that Cole and Christian County wrongfully discharged them in violation of their First Amendment rights. The district court consolidated the two cases.[1] Cole and Christian County moved for summary judgment against Curtis and Bruce. The district court denied their motions, denying qualified immunity to Cole. Applying the Elrod-Branti test, 2 the court concluded that a genuine issue of material fact existed as to whether Cole terminated Curtis and Bruce because of their political activity.

II. Discussion

On appeal, Cole and Christian County argue that the district court erred in denying Cole qualified immunity on Curtis's and Bruce's wrongful-discharge claims. According to Cole and Christian County, under the Elrod-Branti test, Curtis and Bruce did not have a constitutional right to support Cole's opponent and become Cole's deputies. Cole and Christian County assert that "[p]olitical loyalty to the sheriff is an appropriate requirement of a Missouri sheriff['s] deputy because a Missouri deputy possesses all the power and duties of the sheriff, is the agent of the sheriff, and the sheriff is liable for his deputies' actions." Appellants' Br. at 13. Christian County argues that it is entitled to summary judgment on the municipal claims against it because Cole did not violate the constitutional rights of Curtis and Bruce.

A. Qualified Immunity

"We review a denial of summary judgment on the grounds of qualified immunity de novo" Nord v. Walsh Cty., 757 F.3d 734, 738 (8th Cir. 2014). This court has "limited jurisdiction to hear an interlocutory appeal of a district court's denial of qualified immunity." Id. When the interlocutory appeal "turns on an issue of law," we have jurisdiction to review the district court's order denying qualified immunity. Id. We lack jurisdiction, however, "if the pretrial record sets forth genuine issues of fact necessary for resolution of the interlocutory appeal." Id.

In reviewing the district court's denial of qualified immunity, we ask "(1) whether the facts taken in the light most favorable to [the plaintiffs] make out a violation of a constitutional or statutory right; and (2) whether that right was clearly established at the time of the alleged violation." Thompson v. City of Monticello, 894 F.3d993, 998 (8th Cir. 2018) (internal quotation omitted). "Our review is thus limited to determining whether all of the conduct that the district court deemed sufficiently supported for purposes of summary judgment violated the plaintiff[s'] clearly established federal rights." Id. at 997-98 (internal quotation omitted).

Bruce and Curtis allege that Cole wrongfully terminated them in violation of their First Amendment rights. "A State may not condition public employment on an employee's exercise of his or her First Amendment rights." Thompson v. Shock, 852 F.3d 786, 791 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting O'Hare Truck Serv., Inc. v. City of Northlake, 518 U.S. 712, 717 (1996)). In fact, a "government may not make public employment subject to the express condition of political beliefs or prescribed expression" in the absence of "some reasonably appropriate requirement." Id. (quoting O'Hare Truck Serv., Inc., 518 U.S. at 717). "With a few exceptions, the Constitution prohibits a government employer from discharging or demoting an employee because the employee supports a particular...

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