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Richardson v. City of Blytheville

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Western Division

December 7, 2017

CITY OF BLYTHEVILLE, ARKANSAS; and ROSS THOMPSON, individually and in his official capacity as Chief of Police DEFENDANTS



         Rodney Richardson, a former Blytheville police officer, brings this action against the City of Blytheville and its Chief of Police, Ross Thompson, who terminated Richardson's employment on November 17, 2015. Richardson alleges that the defendants violated his rights under the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution through 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and the Arkansas Constitution through the Arkansas Civil Rights Act, Ark. Code Ann. § 16-123-101 et seq. Richardson has filed a motion for partial summary judgment arguing that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law on two issues pertinent to his claim for violation of his Fourteenth Amendment rights: (1) he was not an at-will employee; and (2) the procedures available to him to contest his termination did not satisfy due process. The defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Richardson was an at-will employee and arguing that Thompson is entitled to qualified immunity. For the following reasons, Richardson's motion is denied, the defendants' motion is granted as to Richardson's federal claims, and the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Richardson's state law claims.


         The following facts are undisputed. Richardson became a Blytheville police officer on July 18, 2008. Thompson terminated Richardson's employment on or about December 16, 2012, but the City Council voted 6-0 to overturn the decision and reinstate him. Thompson terminated Richardson's employment a second time on November 17, 2015, and provided Richardson a written letter, in which he stated:

Since September 2, 2015, you have been the subject of an investigation by this and other agencies. On two separate occasions, you were deceptive in your answer to questions posed to you during those official investigations. On one occasion, you admitted to violating department policy.
In addition to violating department policy, the investigations have resulted in substantial Brady material rendering you unable to perform the basic job functions as a police officer.

         Document #18-2 at 23. On the two separate occasions to which Thompson refers in the letter, Richardson submitted to polygraph tests, one in conjunction with a federal operation known as Blynd Justice and one follow-up test as part of a police department internal investigation. The polygraph results indicated some deception.

         On November 18, 2015, Richardson notified the Mayor of Blytheville and the City Clerk that he intended to appeal his termination. In the written notice, Richardson requested an expedited hearing and expressed his desire to continue working as a Blytheville police officer. A hearing was scheduled for December 17, 2015, but because of scheduling conflicts no hearing took place.

         Another hearing was scheduled for March 21, 2016. Richardson says that when he and his lawyer appeared before the City Council for the second hearing, they were told that the matter would be handled in an executive session, with only the City Council, the mayor, and Richardson in attendance. Richardson and his lawyer objected, demanding a public hearing, the right to have a lawyer present, and the right to present witness testimony. No hearing took place. The defendants dispute Richardson's characterization of the March 21 events.


         A court should grant summary judgment if the evidence demonstrates that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). The moving party bears the initial burden of demonstrating the absence of a genuine dispute for trial. Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 323, 106 S.Ct. 2548, 2553, 91 L.Ed.2d 265 (1986). If the moving party meets that burden, the nonmoving party must come forward with specific facts that establish a genuine dispute of material fact. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co., Ltd. v. Zenith Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 587, 106 S.Ct. 1348, 1356, 89 L.Ed.2d 538 (1986); Torgerson v. City of Rochester, 643 F.3d 1031, 1042 (8th Cir. 2011) (en banc). A genuine dispute of material fact exists only if the evidence is sufficient to allow a reasonable jury to return a verdict in favor of the nonmoving party. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 106 S.Ct. 2505, 2510, 91 L.Ed.2d 202 (1986). The Court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the nonmoving party and must give that party the benefit of all reasonable inferences that can be drawn from the record. Pedersen v. Bio-Med. Applications of Minn., 775 F.3d 1049, 1053 (8th Cir. 2015). If the nonmoving party fails to present evidence sufficient to establish an essential element of a claim on which that party bears the burden of proof, then the moving party is entitled to judgment as a matter of law. Id.


         The Fourteenth Amendment prohibits states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. U.S. Const. amend. XIV, § 1. A public employee is entitled to procedural due process-notice and an opportunity to be heard-and substantive due process protections if he stands to lose a constitutionally protected property or liberty interest. See Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 538, 105 S.Ct. 1487, 84 L.Ed.2d 494 (1985). A property interest arises from a “legitimate claim of entitlement” to continuing employment. Bd. of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564, 577, 92 S.Ct. 2701, 33 L.Ed.2d 548 (1972); Floyd-Gimon v. Univ. of Ark. for Med. Scis. ex rel. Bd. of Trs. of Univ. of Ark., 716 F.3d 1141, 1146 (8th Cir. 2013). Richardson asserts that he had a property interest in his continued employment as a police officer and was thus entitled to procedural due process prior to his termination.

         Whether an employee possesses a property interest in continued employment depends on state law. See Roth, 408 U.S. at 578, 92 S.Ct. at 2709 (“[Property interests] are created and their dimensions are defined by existing rules or understandings that stem from an independent source such as state law-rules or understandings that secure certain benefits and that support claims of entitlements to those benefits.”). In Arkansas, when an employee's contract of employment is for an indefinite term, either party generally may terminate the relationship for good cause, bad cause, or no cause at all. See Tripcony v. Ark. School for Deaf, 2012 Ark. 188, 9, 403 S.W.3d 559, 563. In other words, either party generally may terminate the relationship “at will.” The at-will doctrine does not ...

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