Walker v. City of Homerville, Civil Action No. 7:12-CV-137 (HL)

CourtUnited States District Courts. 11th Circuit. Middle District of Georgia
Writing for the CourtHUGH LAWSON
PartiesLAWRENCE WESLEY WALKER, Plaintiff, v. CITY OF HOMERVILLE, a Municipal Corporation; MARGARET PEG BLITCH, Individually and as Mayor of the City of Homerville; WILLIE ALFORD HARDEE, Individually and as City Councilman for the City of Homerville; AND WILLIAM VEST, Individually and as a City Councilman for the City of Homerville, Georgia, Defendants.
Decision Date10 February 2014
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 7:12-CV-137 (HL)

CITY OF HOMERVILLE, a Municipal Corporation; MARGARET PEG BLITCH, Individually
and as Mayor of the City of Homerville; WILLIE ALFORD HARDEE, Individually
and as City Councilman for the City of Homerville; AND WILLIAM VEST, Individually
and as a City Councilman for the City of Homerville, Georgia, Defendants.

Civil Action No. 7:12-CV-137 (HL)


SO ORDERED: February 10, 2014


Before the Court is the Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 18) filed by Defendants City of Homerville ("Homerville"); Margaret Peg Blitch ("Blitch"), individually and in her capacity as mayor of Homerville; Willie Alford Hardee ("Hardee"), individually and in his capacity as councilman for Homerville; and William Vest ("Vest"), individually and in his official capacity as councilman for Homerville (collectively "Defendants"). Defendants' motion is granted in part, and denied in part.

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I. Factual Background

This lawsuit arises from the alleged wrongful termination of Plaintiff as Homerville's chief of police. Seen in the light most favorable to Plaintiff,1 the facts show that the Homerville City Council elected Plaintiff as chief of police on March 22, 2010, and ended his employment on January 4, 2011. Although there was never a written employment contract, Plaintiff met with the city council and Mayor Blitch prior to being hired and was told that if elected he would serve on a year-to-year basis subject to reappointment by the city council. (Plaintiff's Deposition, Doc. 26, pp. 11-13, 101-03, 113-15).

The Homerville City Council elected Plaintiff as chief of police in accordance with the provisions of the Homerville City Charter, which govern the election and removal of chiefs of police. The charter contains the following provision:

[A]t the first regular meeting of the city council of Homerville on the first Tuesday in January of each year, they shall elect one of their number mayor pro tempore for a term of one year….The city council may also at said meetings elect for said city a chief of police and as many policemen as they deem necessary, a recorder, clerk and treasurer; a city attorney and city physician, and may elect such other officers and employees of said city as they may deem necessary; and they shall have the power to fix and

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provide for the salaries and compensation of the officers or employees so elected. All of said officers shall be elected for terms of one year, and until their successors shall be elected and qualified, unless sooner discharged and removed from office. Each of said officers shall take such oath of office, give such bonds, and perform such duties as shall be fixed by ordinance; and the city council of Homerville shall have power and authority to suspend and remove such officers, or impose fines on said officers for gross neglect or malfeasance, after a fair and impartial trial.

(Homerville City Charter, Doc. 18-1, p. 13, Section 17).

Although the city council instructed Plaintiff to address the high crime rate in an area of the city known as Pea Ridge, Defendants became displeased with how he did so. (Doc. 26, pp. 59-61). In November 2010 Plaintiff uncovered an illegal commercial gambling operation in a house in Pea Ridge. The operator was arrested and had felony charges brought against him, although he quickly renewed his operation. On the night of December 11, 2010, Plaintiff led a second raid on the gambling house that revealed the gambling had recommenced. Following both raids, the police issued misdemeanor citations against the people who were gambling in the house and confiscated their money.2 (Id. at 69-74, 84).

Early in the morning of December 12, Mayor Blitch called Plaintiff and told him that the gamblers had come to her house to complain of the citations and the confiscation of their money. Blitch was upset with Plaintiff and said that she did

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not think the individuals had been engaged in illegal gambling because they had poker chips on the table rather than cash. (Id. at 74-76, 83-84).

When Plaintiff returned to work on Monday, December 13, Councilman Hardee came to Plaintiff's office, echoed Blitch's belief that illegal gambling had not occurred, and cautioned Plaintiff that he would lose his job if he did not dismiss the misdemeanor citations. Councilman Vest joined the conversation later and said Plaintiff should reduce the citations to a warning and return the gamblers' money. Plaintiff explained that the gambling investigation was ongoing and that he needed a free hand to complete it. The city manager, who had also joined the conversation, supported Plaintiff's request. Hardee and Vest warned that to keep his job Plaintiff had to comply with their demands and said that three members of the city council and Mayor Blitch agreed with them. (Id. at 84-93).

Concerned that he would violate his oath of office by submitting to the Defendants, Plaintiff spoke with the Homerville city attorney and the local district attorney and, based on the conversations, decided to continue with the investigation. Mayor Blitch called Plaintiff on the afternoon of December 13 to see if he had made a decision about the gambling citations. After Plaintiff told her he would not dismiss the citations, she warned him that he was "in big trouble," and when he asked what she meant, she replied, "You'll see very soon." (Id. at 93-95).

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On January 4, 2011, the Homerville City Council held its first meeting of the new year and voted on whether to keep Plaintiff as chief of police. Plaintiff attended the council meeting but was not given an opportunity to speak. Two council members, including Defendant Vest, voted to keep Plaintiff and two members voted for his discharge. Mayor Blitch provided the tie-breaking vote and voted for his removal. (Id. at 101-03, 115-16).

There is conflicting evidence as to whether the Homerville City Council became displeased with Plaintiff's work prior to December 12, 2010. Defendant Hardee, who served as both police commissioner and a councilman, gave consistently favorable reports on Plaintiff and the police department to the city council. While working for Homerville, Plaintiff learned that his state certification as a police officer was in jeopardy. He informed Mayor Blitch and the city council of this issue, and the mayor and one of the councilmen accompanied him to a hearing to speak on behalf of his ultimately successful petition for a waiver of the state's certification requirements. At the hearing, Blitch spoke glowingly of Plaintiff's work in Homerville. (Id. at 50-56, 61-67). However, during Plaintiff's time in office, the city lost the privilege of housing its inmates at the Clinch County jail. After the city council instructed Plaintiff to reduce the police department's budget, Plaintiff learned that the city could save money by paying the county on a per-inmate basis rather than making an annual payment. The city

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council followed Plaintiff's recommendation to cut the annual payment, but negotiations with the county foundered, and Homerville was forced to transport its inmates to other county jails. (Id. at 80-82).

Alleging that he had a verbal employment contract with the City of Homerville, Plaintiff brought this lawsuit against Defendants for violation of his rights to equal protection and due process under the United States Constitution; retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 ("Title VII")3; wrongful termination; breach of contract; oppressive and tyrannical partiality in the administration of public office in violation of O.C.G.A. § 45-11-4; and tortious interference with business relations. (Complaint, Doc. 1, ¶¶23-44).

II. Summary Judgment Standard

Summary judgment is appropriate when "the pleadings, the discovery and disclosure materials on file, and any affidavits show there is no genuine issue as to any material fact and…the moving party is entitled to a judgment as a matter of law." Fed. R. Civ. Pro. 56(c); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). A genuine issue of material fact arises only when "the evidence is such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986).

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When considering a motion for summary judgment, the court must evaluate all of the evidence, together with any logical inferences, in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party. Id. at 254-55. The court may not, however, make credibility determinations or weigh the evidence. Id. at 255; see also Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Prods., Inc., 530 U.S. 133, 150, 120 S.Ct. 2097, 147 L.Ed.2d 105 (2000).

The party seeking summary judgment "always bears the initial responsibility of informing the district court of the basis for its motion, and identifying those portions of the pleadings, depositions, answers to interrogatories, and admissions on file, together with the affidavits, if any, which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of a material fact." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323 (internal quotation omitted). If the movant meets this burden, the burden shifts to the party opposing summary judgment to go beyond the pleadings and present specific evidence showing that there is a genuine issue of material fact, or that the movant is not entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id. at 324-26. This evidence must consist of more than conclusory allegations. See Avirgan v. Hull, 932 F.2d 1572, 1577 (11th Cir. 1991). In sum, summary judgment must be entered "against a party who fails to make a showing sufficient to establish the existence of an element essential to that party's case, and on which that party will bear the burden of proof at trial." Celotex, 477 U.S. at 322.

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III. Legal Analysis

Because the nature of Plaintiff's employment agreement with...

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