Decision Date06 January 2010
Docket NumberCase No. 4:08cv1628 TCM.
PartiesRobert STRINNI and Jeri Fleschert, Plaintiffs, v. MEHLVILLE FIRE PROTECTION DISTRICT, Missouri, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Eastern District of Missouri

Douglas L. Steele, Megan K. Mechak, Thomas A. Woodley, Woodley and McGillivary, Washington, DC, Richard Andrew Barry, III, Law Offices of Rick Barry, P.C., St. Louis, MO, for Plaintiffs.

Brent E. Roam, Charles B. Jellinek, Sarah N. Swatosh, Bryan Cave LLP, Mathew E. Hoffman, Hoffman and Slocomb, St. Louis, MO, for Defendants.


THOMAS C. MUMMERT, III, United States Magistrate Judge.

This matter is before the Court1 on a motion for summary judgment ("motion") Doc. 52 filed by Mehlville Fire Protection District, Missouri ("District"); Aaron Hilmer, Bonnie C. Stegman, and Ed Ryan (each a member of the District's Board of Directors ("Board") and all collectively referred to as "Board Members"), and James J. Silvernail (Chief for the District, referred to as "Chief") (all collectively referred to as Defendants). Robert Strinni and Jeri Fleschert (Plaintiffs) filed opposition to the motion, and Defendants filed a reply in support of the motion. These parties2 have filed statements of facts, declarations, affidavits, and exhibits in support of their positions on the motion.

By a four count complaint, Plaintiffs seek monetary and equitable relief from Defendants for Defendants' suspension and then termination of Plaintiffs' employment with the District.3 (Compl. Doc. 1.) Specifically, Plaintiffs pursue two federal law claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for Defendants' alleged violations of Plaintiffs' First Amendment rights to free speech and free association4 (Counts I and II, respectively); as well as two state law claims under Sections 105.500 et seq. of the Missouri Revised Statutes for Defendants' alleged violations of Sections 8, 9, and 29 of Article I of the Missouri constitution (Count III) and alleged violations of Section 105.510 of the Missouri Revised Statutes (Count IV).(Id.) Each Defendant filed a first amended answer in response to the complaint, in which each Defendant denies liability and sets forth numerous affirmative defenses. (First Am. Answers Docs. 47, 48, 49, 50, 51.) The four individual Defendants, the Chief and three Board Members, are sued in their individual and official capacities.


The undisputed material facts5 reveal the following.

Plaintiff Strinni was hired by the District as a fire fighter in 1994 and remained a District employee until his discharge in June 2008, attaining the position of Engineer. (Compl. ¶ 14 Doc. 1; Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶ 223 Doc. 53.) Strinni did not have an employment contract with the District, could have voluntarily terminated his employment with the District at will, and was never promised employment for a specific duration of years. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 58, 59, 60 Doc. 53.)

Plaintiff Fleschert was hired by the District as a paramedic in August 1985 and remained a District employee until her discharge in June 2008, attaining the position of Lieutenant. (Compl. ¶ 15 Doc. 1; Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 69, 70, 223 Doc. 53.) Fleschert did not have a written employment contract with the District and acknowledges she was an "at will" employee of the District. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶ 75 Doc. 53.)

Plaintiffs had no disciplinary action taken against them prior to their suspensions and terminations in 2008. (Pls.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 1, 2 Doc. 59-2 at 78.)

Defendant District is a political subdivision of the State of Missouri that provides emergency medical, fire prevention, advanced life support, water and heavy duty rescue, and inspection services for several cities and townships, as well as a portion of an unincorporated area, in south St. Louis County, Missouri. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 1, 2 Doc. 53.) The District employs 130 individuals in seven stations or Houses that are staffed twenty-four hours a day. (Id. ¶¶ 3, 4.) There are three rotations of staff, designated A Crew, B Crew, and C Crew, with each crew supervised by a Deputy Chief. (Id. ¶ 5.) Within each crew, several individuals work the swing shift, which means they move between houses to fill vacancies. (Id. ¶ 6.)

Approximately ninety percent of District's employees or a total of 115 of the District's employees, belong to Local 1889 (or "Local"), an affiliate of the International Association of Fire Fighters, AFL-CIO, CLC. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 9, 14 Doc. 53.) Fleschert was a member of Local 1889 since about 1985, and has been the Local's Secretary since late 2006 or early 2007. (Id. ¶¶ 13, 71, 78.) Strinni was a member of Local 1889 throughout his tenure with the District, was elected Secretary of the Local in 2003, was elected President of the Local in 2006, remained as President until late 2008, and, as President, became the Local's collective bargaining representative in negotiations with the Board. (Id. ¶¶ 63, 64, 65, 13; see also Strinni Decl. ¶ 29 Pls.'.) The Local was told it was welcome to submit to the Board proposals regarding employment issues; however, the Board has not adopted any of the Local's proposals. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 55, 53 Doc. 53.) Any meetings between Strinni, as President of Local 1889, and the Board to discuss employment issues took place in public sessions. (Id. ¶ 67.)

Defendant Silvernail has been Chief of the District since April 25, 2005. (Compl. ¶ 13 Doc. 1; Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶¶ 45, 46 Doc. 53.) As part of his responsibilities as Chief of the District, Silvernail may suspend employees with pay. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶ 48 Doc. 53.) In his role as Chief of the District, Silvernail reports directly to the District's three-member Board, whose members are elected by voters in the District. (Id. ¶¶ 47, 15.)

The current Board consists of Defendants Hilmer, Stegman, and Ryan. (Id. ¶ 17.) Hilmer was elected to the Board on April 5, 2005, and is the Board's Chairperson. (Id. ¶ 18; Compl. ¶ 10 Doc. 1.) Stegman was also elected to the Board on April 5, 2005, and is the Board's Treasurer. (Compl. ¶ 11 Doc. 1; Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶ 18 Doc. 53.) Ryan was elected to the Board in April 2007, and is the Board's Secretary. (Compl. ¶ 12 Doc. 1; Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶ 19 Doc. 53.) The Board Members have voted to change the District's pension plan from a defined benefit plan to a defined contribution plan, to change the District's disability benefit contract, to hire individuals who were certified as both fire fighters and paramedics (referred to as "cross-trained employees"), and to give raises to cross-trained employees. (Id. ¶¶ 22, 23, 25.) Some District employees expressed concerns that these measures had a negative impact on employees. (Pls.' Add'l Facts ¶ 27 Doc. 59-2.) Among other things, the Board is responsible for all employee discipline beyond suspension with pay. (Defs.' Statem. Facts ¶ 48 Doc. 53.)

In early 2007, the Local campaigned on behalf of a Board candidate other than Ryan. (Pls.' Add'l Facts. ¶ 4 Doc. 59-2.)

In February 2007, Hilmer was quoted in a local newspaper article as making the following comments about a lawsuit Local 1889 had filed against the Board:

That shouldn't surprise anybody because, after all, this group and the puppets they run for office specialize in wasting people's money.... But I think this shows that they thought lawsuits, nasty letters and low-lifes sent to intimidate could make us roll over and stop the march of reform. Well, that's not going to happen.

(Id. ¶ 15.) Hilmer further stated in the article:

I hope and have hoped that some rational employees will step forward to talk to the Board on real-world problems facing the Fire District. I know it's possible because Stegman and I did it at South County Fire Alarm where we worked with Local 1889 employees to right the ship for the betterment of both parties. But unfortunately, it seems that these types of individuals are not in the majority at Mehlville.... Rather, in Hilmer's estimation, bargaining unit members wanted to derail the train by lawsuits and harassment.

(Id. ¶ 17.)

After Ryan's election, an op-ed piece authored by Strinni was published in a local newspaper explaining to the public why Local 1889 had supported the candidate opposing Ryan. (Id. ¶ 5.)6 In an April 18, 2007, newspaper article Hilmer described the Local's campaign in support of the unsuccessful Board candidate as "a smear campaign against me personally," and as "nothing more than a tirade about Aaron Hilmer." (Id. ¶ 16.)

During an August 2007 Board meeting, Plaintiffs attempted to present the Local's proposals relating to employee pay and benefits. (Id. ¶ 6.)

On August 8, 2007, Hilmer made statements in a local newspaper indicating the District's employees had not done anything to help the Board with its effort to make the District a better place, by hiring more qualified people, giving the community more services, and dealing with problems everyone faces, such as health care and pension issues, but rather had pursued lawsuits, personal attacks, and "circus stunts." (Id. ¶ 18.)

In December 2007, Hilmer provided an interview to a local newspaper which reported that he stated:

"Contrast this to the first conversation I had with the leader of Mehlville's firefighters' union," Hilmer said, referring to then-District Local 1889 President Chris Francis. "He called to see what the make and model of my car was so they could replace the windshield that was smashed out the previous evening. Unfortunately, that was the high point of the behavior of their leadership and it was straight into the gutter from there.
"I subscribe to the old saying that an open hand accomplishes more than a closed fist or in Mehlville's union's case, a baseball bat ... Why the employees continue to break their backs so their incompetent union bosses can make $35,000 a year to drive them into the ground is beyond me. But that's a choice they make when it

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