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Holland v. Washington County

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

April 14, 2016

BRANDON HOLLAND PLAINTIFF
v.
WASHINGTON COUNTY, ARKANSAS; MARILYN EDWARDS, individually and in her official capacity; DAN SHORT, individually and in his official capacity; SHAWN SHRUM, individually and in his official capacity; and DONNIE COLEMAN, individually and in his official capacity DEFENDANTS

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

TIMOTHY L. BROOKS UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

Presently before the Court are Defendants Washington County's, Marilyn Edwards', Dan Short's, Shawn Shrum's, and Donnie Coleman's Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11), and Plaintiff Brandon Holland's Response in Opposition (Doc. 17). The Motion is now ripe for decision. For the reasons stated herein, Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment is GRANTED.

I. BACKGROUND

The Court recites the following facts in the light most favorable to Holland. See Canada v. Union Bee. Co., 135 F.3d 1211, 1212-13 (8th Cir. 1997). At all times relevant to this case, Holland was employed as a Heavy Equipment Operator ("HEO") for the Washington County Road Department (the "Road Department" or the "Department") in Washington County, Arkansas. The Defendants, aside from the County itself, were all officials and employees of the County: Marilyn Edwards was the County Judge-a position that is not judicial in nature, but is more akin to being the CEO for the County; Dan Short was Edwards' Chief of Staff; Donnie Coleman was the Superintendent of the Road Department; and Shawn Shrum was the Assistant Superintendent of the Road Department (collectively, "Individual Defendants").

One morning during the late-summer or early-fall months of 2013, Jeff Williams, a then-candidate for County Judge of Washington County, stopped by the Road Department's shop with some doughnuts for Department employees. As a group of employees indulged in those treats, Williams spoke to them about certain changes in Department policies that he would enact if elected. Holland liked Williams' ideas, and decided at that time to support his candidacy for County Judge. A couple of weeks later, Holland began discussing his support for Williams in the Department shop's break room-a place where matters of politics were casually discussed along with other social happenings in the mornings before employees were dispatched to various worksites along the County's roads. He also discussed his support for Williams at the job site from time to time.

During October of that year, Holland saw Shawn Shrum at a local football game in Praire Grove, Arkansas. Shrum struck up a conversation with Holland about Williams, wherein Holland expressed support for his candidacy. What by all accounts was a cordial discussion ensued, with Shrum taking a position in support of the incumbent Judge, Marilyn Edwards.

Approximately two weeks later, on November 4, 2013, a Department employee named Justin Tyree abruptly resigned his position to take a higher-paying job elsewhere. Tyree's main job responsibility was to operate a backhoe on the Department's tile crew. Department Superintendent Donnie Coleman made the decision to transfer Holland to the tile crew to replace Tyree, at least temporarily. Holland was previously assigned to operate a bulldozer on the new construction crew, a job which he preferred.

After spending approximately two weeks on the tile crew, Holland had a meeting with Shrum, Coleman, and another supervisor named Rusty Smith. At the meeting, Holland expressed his preference for returning to the new construction crew to operate a bulldozer. Shrum and Coleman declined to grant his request. About a week later, Holland's access to the County truck that he had previously used to commute to and from work was taken away. Also around that time, rumors began to swirl around the Department that Holland had been transferred to the tile crew because of his support for Williams. This led to a parking-lot confrontation between Holland and Shrum. In short, Shrum accused Holland of spreading the rumor, and Holland denied the accusation. Either Shrum or Holland suggested that they have a meeting the next day to resolve the matter.

The next day, a meeting was indeed held in Coleman's office between Holland, Coleman, Shrum, Smith, and another supervisor named Jeff Crowder. The meeting became heated, and both Holland and Shrum raised their voices at each other. At one point, Shrum went to go shut the door to Coleman's office, and Holland obstructed his ability to do so, stating that he had nothing to hide and wanted everyone to hear the conversation. Also during the meeting, Holland called Shrum "a lying piece of shit." (Doc. 19-1, p. 41). Towards the conclusion of the meeting, Shrum stated that Holland would not be allowed to operate a backhoe that day, for fear that he was too angry and would endanger his co-workers or ruin the equipment. Instead, Holland was assigned to help remove dirt and snow that had accumulated in peoples' lawns as a result of plowing the County's roads. On that particular day the tile crew was working with inmates on a work-release assignment to complete that task.

Holland refused the assignment. After confirming that Holland was in fact refusing, Coleman called Dan Short to inform him of what had happened. Short discussed the matter with Edwards, and they agreed that the proper course of action was to fire Holland. Short arrived at Coleman's office shortly thereafter, confirmed that Holland was refusing his assignment, and told him that his employment with the Department was terminated.

Holland filed his Complaint (Doc. 1) on April 17, 2015, alleging that he was transferred and terminated because of his support for Williams, in violation of the First Amendment, the Arkansas Civil Rights Act ("ACRA"), and Arkansas common law. Defendants filed an Answer (Doc. 4) on July 7, 2015, generally denying Holland's allegations, and then moved for summary judgment on January 22, 2016. Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (Doc. 11) argues: (i) that Holland cannot make out a prima facie First Amendment violation because he cannot prove causation and because his transfer was not an adverse employment action; (ii) that even if he has made out a prima facie case, Defendants have shown a neutral justification for Holland's discharge; (iii) that even if Holland has proved a First Amendment violation, his rights were not clearly established, so the Individual Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity; (iv) that Holland has failed to prove County or official capacity liability; (v) that Holland has failed to prove a First Amendment prior restraint claim; and (vi) that Holland has failed to prove the Arkansas state tort of outrage. After reciting the legal standard for summary judgment, the Court discusses Defendants' Motion below, and finds that it should be granted.

II. SUMMARY JUDGMENT LEGAL STANDARD

"The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The Court must view the facts in the light most favorable to the non-moving party, and give the non-moving party the benefit of any logical inferences that can be drawn from the facts. Union Elec. Co., 135 F.3d at 1212-13. The moving party bears the burden of proving the absence of any material factual disputes. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c); Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); Nat'l Bank of Commerce of El Dorado, Ark. v. Dow Chem. Co., 165 F.3d 602 (8th Cir. 1999). If the moving party meets this burden, then the non-moving party must "come forward with 'specific facts showing that there is a genuine issue for trial.'" Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 587 (quoting Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)). These facts must be "such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party." Allison v. Flexway Trucking, Inc., 28 F.3d 64, 66 (8th Cir. 1994) (quoting Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477U.S. 242, 248 (1986)). "The nonmoving party must do more than rely on allegations or denials in the pleadings, and the ...


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