Schnekloth v. Deakins, 21-CV-5131

CourtUnited States District Courts. 8th Circuit. Western District of Arkansas
Writing for the CourtTIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE
PartiesCLINT SCHNEKLOTH PLAINTIFF v. PATRICK DEAKINS, Washington County, Arkansas Justice of the Peace, in his individual and official capacities; SAM DUNCAN, Washington County, Arkansas Justice of the Peace, in his individual and official capacities; BRIAN LESTER, Washington County Attorney, in his individual and official capacities DEFENDANTS
Docket Number21-CV-5131
Decision Date07 April 2022

CLINT SCHNEKLOTH PLAINTIFF
v.

PATRICK DEAKINS, Washington County, Arkansas Justice of the Peace, in his individual and official capacities; SAM DUNCAN, Washington County, Arkansas Justice of the Peace, in his individual and official capacities; BRIAN LESTER, Washington County Attorney, in his individual and official capacities DEFENDANTS

No. 21-CV-5131

United States District Court, W.D. Arkansas, Fayetteville Division

April 7, 2022


MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Plaintiff Clint Schnekloth filed this civil rights action pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Now pending before the Court are a Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 14) filed by Washington County Justices of the Peace (“JP”) Sam Duncan and Patrick Deakins, and Washington County Attorney Brian Lester, and Plaintiff's Response in Opposition (Doc. 16). The Court heard oral argument regarding this motion on November 2, 2021.

The motion is GRANTED with respect to County Attorney Lester in his individual capacity; DENIED as to JPs Duncan and Deakins in their individual capacities; and GRANTED as to all Defendants in their official capacities.

I. BACKGROUND

This case concerns Plaintiff's removal from two public meetings on June 28 and July 15, 2021, in Washington County, Arkansas. Plaintiff sues two local legislators and the County attorney in their individual and official capacities, arguing his removal amounts

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to discrimination in violation of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.

A. Quorum Court Structure & Procedures

The Arkansas Constitution empowers counties to exercise “local legislative authority” through the quorum court. Ark. Const. Amend. LV, § 1. These legislative bodies possess jurisdiction over local matters, see Venhaus v. State ex rel. Lofton, 285 Ark. 23, 25 (1985), and may levy taxes and appropriate public funds.[1]

The Washington County Quorum Court is composed of 15 elected members, referred to as JPs, and five committees.[2] A general session is held monthly, see Washington Cnty., Ark. Code of Ordinances, § 2-16(a) (2017), and individual committees often hold separate sessions as well.

Under Arkansas law, the quorum court must open its meetings to the public, as well as “adopt rules for conducting the meeting which afford citizens a reasonable opportunity to participate prior to the final decision” on a given matter. Ark. Code Ann. § 14-14-109. Local ordinances set forth specific rules for public participation in Quorum Court meetings, including:

• Each general session must begin with a 15-minute period in which “citizens may comment on any issue that is relevant to the business of the Quorum Court or the County, ” as well as provide a 12-minute period for public comment prior to the final vote on a given ordinance or resolution during which speakers must alternate between proponents and opponents
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• Committees must reserve 12 minutes for public comment before the committee votes on any proposal, as well as provide a 12-minute public comment period at the end of each committee meeting
• During a public comment period, no individual may speak longer than three minutes.

Code of Ordinances, § 2-32. The county judge-in his role as the county's chief executive officer-serves as presiding officer over quorum court meetings. § 14-14-904(d)(1)(A).[3]

The county attorney must also attend to “render[] such advice and consultation as may be appropriate.” Code of Ordinances, § 2-174.

Plaintiff's description of quorum court meetings generally accords with the formal requirements articulated in state and local law. Per the Amended Complaint, Washington County Quorum Court meetings are open to the public and provide a 12-minute period of public comment, with each speaker limited to three minutes. See Doc. 11, p. 2.

B. Plaintiff's Political Opposition

According to Plaintiff, Quorum Court meetings became increasingly tense in spring 2021. Plaintiff contends Defendants regularly censored political opposition. That included two JPs, who were often muted during Zoom meetings or otherwise prevented from participating. Furthermore, while the Quorum Court traditionally extended public comment to allow more individuals to participate, Defendants began reducing the comment period to the statutorily required 12 minutes.

Plaintiff, a Lutheran minister and housing advocate, helped organize a public Facebook group to increase turnout at Quorum Court meetings and encouraged citizens to write letters and file Freedom of Information Act requests. Id. at 7. Plaintiff regularly

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attended meetings, during which he participated (or attempted to) in the public comment period. Id. He also “consistently protested” outside the meetings, including prior to the meetings on both June 28 and July 15, 2021. Id.

C. Quorum Court County Services Committee Meeting, June 28, 2021

On June 28, 2021, the County Services Committee met to discuss issues in the local public defender's office, several funding-related topics, the County's lapsed recycling program, and a “Resolution Declaring Washington County is a Pro Life County, ” sponsored by Defendant JP Deakins. See Doc. 11, p. 8. Defendant JP Duncan chaired the meeting.

The meeting was punctuated with small outbursts among audience members. For example, several community members heckled the minister who led the opening prayer, interrupting him with shouts of “in Jesus' name” and “say his name.” Id. Two JPs were repeatedly interrupted by jeers. And, at one point, a member of the Public Defender's office stood and exclaimed, “[I]t's always my office with no air conditioning!” Id. at 8-9.

As JP Deakins prepared to present his proposed “Resolution Declaring Washington County is a Pro Life County, ” things got a little rowdier. JP Duncan preemptively ordered the Sheriff's deputies to remove anyone who interrupted the proceedings. Id. at 9. Public “talkback” broke out. Some members of the crowd booed in opposition to the resolution, while others cheered in support. Id. at 9-10. JP Duncan reiterated that the Sheriff's deputies would “enforce respectful behavior and remove people.” Id. at 10. JP Deakins proceeded with his presentation.

At some point, JP Duncan ordered that one audience member voicing opposition be removed. Id. at 11. Upon “call[ing] out from his seat to protest the unfairness, ” Plaintiff

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too was removed. Id. Plaintiff contends that only Defendants' “political opponents” were told to be quiet, threatened with removal, or removed.

Following the meeting, Defendants removed the contact information for the Justices of the Peace from the County website, as well as “delet[ed] the ‘alljps@washingtoncountyar.gov' email address that [previously] allowed constituents to easily contact their elected officials.” Id. at 13.

D. Quorum Court General Meeting, July 15, 2021

On July 15, 2021, the full Quorum Court assembled at the Courthouse. The agenda included a vote on JP Deakins's Resolution. Plaintiff attended a protest outside the Courthouse and then entered the building. Before the meeting began, Plaintiff approached JP Deakins to voice concern about JP Deakins's recent conduct on Twitter.[4]Id. at 14. In response, JP Deakins ordered the Washington County Sheriff's Department to remove Plaintiff. Plaintiff peacefully complied and left the building.

II. LEGAL STANDARD

In ruling on a motion to dismiss, the Court must “accept as true all facts pleaded by the non-moving party and grant all reasonable inferences from the pleadings in favor of the non-moving party.” Gallagher v. City of Clayton, 699 F.3d 1013, 1016 (8th Cir. 2012) (quoting United States v. Any & All Radio Station Transmission Equip., 207 F.3d 458, 462 (8th Cir. 2000)). “[A] complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to ‘state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). “A claim

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has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Glick v. W. Power Sports, Inc., 944 F.3d 714, 717 (8th Cir. 2019) (quoting Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 663)).

“This standard simply calls for enough facts to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of the claim or element, ” Delker v. MasterCard Int'l, Inc., 21 F.4th 1019, 1024 (8th Cir. 2022) (cleaned up), but the alleged facts must be specific enough “to raise a right to relief above the speculative level, ” Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. Pleadings that contain mere “labels and conclusions” or “a formulaic recitation of the elements of the cause of action will not do.” Id. A court is not required to “blindly accept the legal conclusions drawn by the pleader from the facts.” Westcott v. City of Omaha, 901 F.2d 1486, 1488 (8th Cir. 1990).

Finally, “[f]ederal pleading rules call for a short and plain statement of the claim showing that the pleader is entitled to relief; they do not countenance dismissal of a complaint for imperfect statement of the legal theory supporting the claim asserted.” Johnson v. City of Shelby, 574 U.S. 10, 11 (2014) (internal quotation marks and citation omitted). Quite simply, “it is unnecessary to set out a legal theory for the plaintiff's claim for relief” in a pleading. In re SuperValu, Inc., 870 F.3d 763, 772 (8th Cir. 2017) (quoting City of Shelby, 574 U.S. at 12). Here, “[s]o long as the facts alleged in the complaint demonstrate” a deprivation of Plaintiff's constitutional right, Plaintiff “ha[s] met [his] burden at the pleading stage.” Id.

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III. PERSONAL LIABILITY

Plaintiff alleges the decision to twice expel him from public meetings violated his constitutional rights.[5] Defendants maintain Plaintiff fails to state a claim...

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