Davis v. City of Greensboro, Nos. 13–1820

CourtUnited States Courts of Appeals. United States Court of Appeals (4th Circuit)
Writing for the CourtDIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge
Citation770 F.3d 278
PartiesBrett DAVIS; Brian Chris Smoot; Steve Szymeczek, Plaintiffs–Appellees, v. CITY OF GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA, Defendant–Appellant. Wendy Cheek; Brian Keith Collins; Joseph Casey Councilman; Walter Steven Couturier; Timothy Fields ; William C. Morgan, Plaintiffs–Appellees, v. City of Greensboro, North Carolina, Defendant–Appellant. David Morgan; Rogers Reynolds, Plaintiffs–Appellees, v. City of Greensboro, North Carolina, Defendant–Appellant.
Decision Date22 October 2014
Docket NumberNos. 13–1820,13–1826,13–1825,13–1827.

770 F.3d 278

Brett DAVIS;

Brian Chris Smoot;

Steve Szymeczek, Plaintiffs–Appellees
v.
CITY OF GREENSBORO, NORTH CAROLINA, Defendant–Appellant.


Wendy Cheek;

Brian Keith Collins;

Joseph Casey Councilman;

Walter Steven Couturier;

Timothy Fields ;

William C. Morgan, Plaintiffs–Appellees
v.
City of Greensboro, North Carolina, Defendant–Appellant.


David Morgan;

Rogers Reynolds, Plaintiffs–Appellees
v.
City of Greensboro, North Carolina, Defendant–Appellant.

Nos. 13–1820
13–1825
13–1826
13–1827.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit.

Argued: Sept. 16, 2014.
Decided: Oct. 22, 2014.


770 F.3d 279

ARGUED:Kenneth Kyre, Jr., Pinto, Coates, Kyre & Brown, PLLC, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellant. Torin L. Fury, Frazier Hill & Fury, RLLP, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellees. ON BRIEF:William L. Hill, James Demarest Secor, III, Frazier Hill & Fury, RLLP, Greensboro, North Carolina, for Appellees.

Before MOTZ and KING, Circuit Judges, and DAVIS, Senior Circuit Judge.

Opinion

Affirmed by published opinion. Judge MOTZ wrote the opinion, in which Judge KING and Senior Judge DAVIS joined.

DIANA GRIBBON MOTZ, Circuit Judge:

The City of Greensboro appeals the denial of motions to dismiss, arguing that the district court erred in rejecting the City's claims of governmental immunity. Before we can review the district court's judgments, we must resolve the threshold

770 F.3d 280

question of whether we have jurisdiction over the interlocutory orders in these consolidated appeals. For the reasons that follow, we conclude that we do have jurisdiction, and we affirm the judgments of the district court.

I.

Four groups of current and retired Greensboro police officers and firefighters (collectively, “the Officers”) brought separate suits against the City, alleging violations of state and federal law. Broadly speaking, the Officers' claims relate to the City's alleged failure to pay its employees certain wages and benefits.

The only benefit at issue in these appeals is the City's “longevity payment program.” As recounted in the Officers' complaints, the City provides annual lump-sum payments to police officers and firefighters based on the number of years they have worked for the City. Employees hired prior to July 1, 1994, who completed twenty years of service by June 30, 2010, were grandfathered into a previous longevity payment program. For other employees, the longevity payments began after five years of service and increased with each additional five years on the job. The Officers allege that the longevity payments are “an integral part” of their employment contracts with the City, and that the City lists the payments as a “benefit” in its Employee Handbook.

According to the complaints, the City began to modify the longevity payment program in 2010. First, the officers allege, the City capped the payments for certain employees at a lower percentage of their annual salary. Two years later, it converted the longevity payments for some employees into a discretionary bonus program. These changes lowered the amount some of the Officers were entitled to receive. The Officers also allege that the City failed to include longevity pay in calculating their base rate of pay. This inaccuracy assertedly led to underpayment of overtime wages, which in turn resulted in inadequate contributions to the Officers' retirement funds.

In addition to the many other causes of action in each complaint, the Officers allege that the City breached a contract for longevity pay.1 Some of the Officers also claim that they are entitled to the longevity payments under the doctrines of equitable and quasi estoppel.

The City moved to dismiss every cause of action in all four complaints. In response to the breach of contract and estoppel claims, the City argued that governmental immunity protected it from suit. Although a municipality in North Carolina waives governmental immunity when it enters into a valid contract, the City claimed that the Officers failed to adequately allege the existence of valid contracts for longevity pay.

The district court granted in part and denied in part the City's motions to dismiss. Most of the Officers' claims survived the motions, including the only claims at issue in this appeal—the Officers' breach of contract and estoppel claims, to which the City contends it enjoys governmental immunity from suit. The district court held that the Officers “sufficiently alleged a contractual longevity payment obligation.” Davis v. City of Greensboro, N.C., 2013 WL 2317730, at *3 (M.D.N.C. May 28, 2013). After noting that any further evaluation of the City's immunity defense was “inappropriate for resolution”

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because of the “highly fact-specific” nature of the inquiry necessary to resolve the immunity issue, the district court denied the City's motions to dismiss the Officers' contract and estoppel claims. Id. at *2–3.

The City timely noted an appeal of this portion of the district court's order in all four cases. We have consolidated the cases for our review.

II.

Before we can address the City's governmental immunity defense, we must first determine whether we have jurisdiction over these appeals.

Federal law, specifically 28 U.S.C. § 1291 (2012), limits our jurisdiction to appeals from “final decisions of the district courts.” Generally, the denial of a motion to dismiss does not constitute a “final decision,” and thus does not provide the proper basis for an appeal. See Johnson v. Jones, 515 U.S. 304, 309, 115 S.Ct. 2151, 132 L.Ed.2d 238 (1995). But the collateral order doctrine extends our jurisdiction to a “ ‘small class' of collateral rulings that, although they do not end the litigation, are appropriately deemed ‘final.’ ” Mohawk Indus., Inc. v. Carpenter, 558 U.S. 100, 106, 130 S.Ct. 599, 175 L.Ed.2d 458 (2009) (quoting Cohen v. Beneficial Indus. Loan Corp., 337 U.S. 541, 546, 69 S.Ct. 1221, 93 L.Ed. 1528 (1949) ). This small class “includes only decisions that are conclusive, that resolve important questions separate from the merits, and that are effectively unreviewable on appeal from the final judgment in the underlying action.” Swint v. Chambers Cnty. Comm'n, 514 U.S. 35, 42, 115 S.Ct. 1203, 131 L.Ed.2d 60 (1995) ; see also Cobra Natural Res., LLC v. Fed. Mine Safety & Health Review Comm'n, 742 F.3d 82, 86 (4th Cir.2014).

The Supreme Court has held that orders denying certain kinds of immunity fall within the collateral order doctrine. In so doing, the Court has exercised jurisdiction over interlocutory appeals of orders rejecting defenses of absolute immunity, Nixon v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 731, 742, 102 S.Ct. 2690, 73 L.Ed.2d 349 (1982), qualified immunity, Mitchell v. Forsyth, 472 U.S. 511, 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806, 86 L.Ed.2d 411 (1985), and a state's claim of sovereign immunity, Puerto Rico Aqueduct & Sewer Auth. v. Metcalf & Eddy, Inc., 506 U.S. 139, 147, 113 S.Ct. 684, 121 L.Ed.2d 605 (1993). We have similarly exercised jurisdiction over an interlocutory appeal of an order rejecting the kind of immunity at issue here, a municipality's claim of governmental immunity. Gray–Hopkins v. Prince George's Cnty., 309 F.3d 224, 231–32 (4th Cir.2002).

Only a claimed “immunity from suit, ” not “a mere defense to liability,” can provide the proper basis for an interlocutory appeal. Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806 (emphasis in original). To determine whether a municipality's claim of governmental immunity constitutes an immunity from suit, we “must look to substantive state law.” Gray–Hopkins, 309 F.3d at 231.

Here, the scope of governmental immunity under North Carolina law is clear. The Supreme Court of North Carolina has held that governmental immunity provides a “complete defense” that “shields a defendant entirely from having to answer for its conduct at all in a civil suit for damages.” Craig ex rel. Craig v. New Hanover Cnty. Bd. of Educ., 363 N.C. 334, 678 S.E.2d 351, 354 (2009). As such, governmental immunity in North Carolina constitutes “an immunity from suit rather than a mere defense to liability.” Id. (emphasis in original) (quoting Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 526, 105 S.Ct. 2806 ) (internal quotation mark omitted).

Even when a defendant claims an immunity from suit, however, certain orders denying

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immunity do not provide a proper basis for interlocutory appeal under the collateral order doctrine. A district court's denial of immunity constitutes “an appealable ‘final decision’ ” only “to the extent that it turns on an issue of law.” Mitchell, 472 U.S. at 530, 105 S.Ct. 2806. In Ashcroft v. Iqbal, the Court clarified that a ruling on the sufficiency of the pleadings at the motion-to-dismiss stage does turn on such “an issue of law.” 556 U.S. 662, 672, 129 S.Ct. 1937, 173 L.Ed.2d 868 (2009). As the Court explained, that holding is consistent with the “well established” rule that “a district court's order rejecting qualified immunity at the motion-to-dismiss stage of a proceeding is a...

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