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Lang v. Hampton

United States District Court, E.D. Arkansas, Pine Bluff Division

June 5, 2018

JODI LANG PLAINTIFF
v.
CLINTON HAMPTON, ROWENA COPICO, and LUCAN HARGRAVES DEFENDANTS

          OPINION AND ORDER

          KRISTINE G. BAKER, UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT JUDGE

         Before the Court are separate defendants Clinton Hampton and Lucan Hargraves' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 38) and separate defendant Rowena Copico's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 41). Plaintiff Jodi Lang seeks relief pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, alleging that defendants in their individual capacities conspired to terminate her from her employment with the Dermott City Nursing Home without due process of law in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Ms. Lang also seeks relief pursuant to 18 U.S.C. § 1961, et seq., alleging that defendants in their individual capacities caused her damages as a result of their “pattern of racketeering activity.” (Dkt. No. 1, ¶ 2). Defendants move for summary judgment on each of these claims. Ms. Lang responded to defendants' motions for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 55). The Court grants both Mr. Hampton and Mr. Hargraves' motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 38) and Ms. Copico's motion for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 41).

         I. Factual And Procedural Background

         Mr. Hampton and Mr. Graves filed a statement of undisputed material facts (Dkt. No. 40). Ms. Lang's only response to the statement of undisputed material facts is a statement in her response: “Defendants' statement of undisputed facts are addressed via argument, as immaterial or overcome by contrary undisputed facts.” (Dkt. No. 55, ¶ 4). Rule 56.1 of the Local Rules of the United States District Court for the Eastern and Western Districts of Arkansas states that, if a non-moving party opposes a motion for summary judgment, “it shall file, in addition to any response and brief, a separate, short and concise statement of the material facts as to which it contends a genuine dispute exists to be tried.” Ms. Lang's statement in her response is not “a separate, short and concise statement” of the material facts to which a genuine dispute exists. Accordingly, unless otherwise noted, the following facts are taken from Mr. Hampton and Mr. Grave's statement of undisputed material facts, as the Court considers those facts deemed admitted by Ms. Lang.

         Ms. Lang began her employment as the administrator of the Dermott City Nursing Home (“Nursing Home”) in January 2009 (Dkt. No. 8, ¶ 3). The Nursing Home is owned by the City of Dermott, Arkansas, and is governed by a Nursing Home Commission (“Commission”) with a five-member Board of Commissioners pursuant to a city ordinance (Id.). Mr. Hampton was elected Mayor of Dermott in 2014 and assumed his position on January 1, 2015 (Dkt. No. 40-1, at 2). On January 22, 2015, the Dermott City Council voted to hire Mr. Hargraves as a liaison to the Nursing Home (Id.). In this position, Mr. Hargraves “checked with all departments [of the City] thoroughly through the week, ” including the Nursing Home (Id.).

         On January 23, 2015, Mr. Hampton, in his role as Mayor, and the City Council “temporarily suspended the duties and responsibilit[ies] of the nursing home commission until further notice.” (Dkt. No. 40-2, at 1). Until further notice was give, Ms. Lang was instructed to “answer directly to our representative, Mr. Lucan Hargraves.” (Id.). On February 3, 2015, Ms. Lang sent a letter to Mr. Hargraves expressing her misgivings about the suspension of the Nursing Home's Board of Commissioners and actions taken since that suspension occurred (Dkt. No. 40-3, at 1). Furthermore, Ms. Lang noted that a “personnel review committee was appointed by the Mayor to review a personnel issue that had already been reviewed by the now suspended Board, ” and that “the City Council was not included in the process of appointing a personnel review committee.” (Id.). According to Ms. Lang, the personnel review committee appointed by the Mayor “decided to overturn” the decision of the actions of an employee's Department Manager and Administrator regarding that employee's termination (Id.). Ms. Lang also sent Mr. Hampton a letter “requesting to appeal the decision of the Personnel Review Committee you appointed to review the termination of Ms. Shantell Patton.” (Id., at 2).

         On May 15, 2015, the Mayor and the City Council voted to put the Nursing Home's Board of Commissioners “back in place.” (Dkt. No. 40-4, at 1). On May 26, 2015, during a “special called council meeting, ” the Mayor and City Council interviewed replacements for the Nursing Home's Board of Commissioners (Id.). At that meeting, the Mayor and City Council voted to replace three former members of the Nursing Home's Board of Commissioners with three new members (Id.).

         On July 13, 2015, Ordinance No. 599-2015-02 was passed by the City Council (Dkt. No. 40-6, at 1-6). Per Ordinance No. 599-2015-02, the City of Dermott shall “continue and perpetuate a commission to be known as the Nursing Home Commission to be composed of five (5) citizens who are qualified electors of the City of Dermott, Arkansas, ” and the Ordinance gives the Nursing Home Commission “full and complete authority to manage, operate, maintain and keep in good repair the Dermott Nursing Home . . . .” (Id., at 1-2). The Ordinance also states that, “Commissioners shall have the right to employ or remove the administrator and all other employees provided the hiring, management, promotion, discipline[, ] and termination of employees shall be in compliance with all federal and state law . . . .” (Id., at 2). The Ordinance further states that “[e]mployees who feel aggrieved shall be entitled to a graduated disciplinary appeal process, ” and that such appeals shall be heard first by the Nursing Home Commission and then to the Dermott City Council (Id., at 3-4).

         On May 4, 2016, Ms. Lang signed an acknowledgment that she had “received and read a copy of the Dermott City Nursing Home Employee Handbook dated May 2016.” (Dkt. No. 40-8). Ms. Lang further acknowledged that “this handbook supersede[d], and replaec[d] [sic] all prior published or unpublished policies, handbooks, or other publications related to personnel matters.” (Id.). Further, Ms. Lang agreed and acknowledged that the employment relationship she had with the Nursing Home would “be ‘at will' in nature” and that either could “terminate this employment relationship at any time and without cause or penalty.” (Id.). The handbook itself states that “[a]ll employees at Dermott City Nursing Home are employed ‘At Will.'” (Dkt. No. 40-7, at 4 (emphasis in original)). Per the handbook, an employee's “at will” status could “only be altered by a written contract of employment which [wa]s specific as to all material terms and [wa]s signed by both the employee and the Administrator of Dermott City Nursing Home.” (Id.).

         On November 21, 2016, the Nursing Home Commission terminated Ms. Lang's employment with the Nursing Home (Dkt. Nos. 40-9, at 4; 40-10, at 2). According to Ms. Julia Boatner, the chairperson of the Nursing Home Commission on November 21, 2016, Ms. Lang was terminated “for absenteeism/tardiness, work performance[, ] and violations of procedures. Specifically, Ms. Lang wrote a $10, 000 check without Nursing Home Commission approval; violated the policies and procedures of the Nursing Home Commission; [made] derogatory posts; and misappropriated Nursing Home Funds.” (Dkt. No. 40-10, at 2). Ms. Boatner signed “Employee Warning Reports” which were given to Ms. Lang on October 19, 2015, and February 15, 2016, where Ms. Lang was cited for failure to “follow the Board of Direct[ors] directions” and for lack of attendance, insubordination, lateness, violation of company policies, and authorized absences (Id., at 4-5).

         During the November 21, 2016, meeting of the Nursing Home Commission, Ms. Lang stated “ya'll discussion [sic] what I did and didn't do right in executive session.” (Dkt. No. 40-9, at 3). Ms. Lang testified that the Nursing Home Commission voted in executive session to terminate her (Dkt. No. 40-17, at 4). Mike Boyd, a former commissioner on the Nursing Home Commission, testified that he did not hear Mr. Hampton say “Fire Jodi Lang, ” but Mr. Boyd did say that “it was apparent” that Mr. Hampton wanted Ms. Lang terminated (Dkt. No. 40-26, at 2).

         Ms. Lang sent a letter to Mr. Hampton invoking the “graduated disciplinary appeal process” and requesting that the issue of her termination “be placed on the agenda for the next scheduled Dermott City Council meeting held in December” (Dkt. No. 40-20, at 1). The minutes of the Dermott City Council's December 12, 2016, meeting indicate that the City Council voted to terminate Ms. Lang (Dkt. No. 40-11, at 1). There is no record evidence that Ms. Lang spoke or otherwise appeared at the December 12, 2016, City Council meeting. At the same meeting, the City Council passed Resolution No. 2016-10, which resolved to pay $600.00 to each member of the Nursing Home Commission (Id., at 3). Mr. Boyd asserts that the “reinstated board [] was promised $600.00 in a bonus in a board meeting . . . .” (Dkt. No. 55-1, at 2). However, at his deposition, Mr. Boyd testified that he never heard Mr. Hampton offer payment to the board members of the Nursing Home Commission in exchange for Ms. Lang's termination (Dkt. No. 40-26, at 3). Ms. Boatner avers that “none of the Commissioners ever actually received” a $600.00 payment (Dkt. No. 40-10, at 2).

         Ms. Lang presents the affidavit of Mr. Boyd to rebut defendants' motions for summary judgment (Dkt. No. 55-1). Mr. Boyd avers that Mr. Hampton “didn't want Ms. Lang to run the home, ” and that he “interfered with employee matters and deemed Ms. Lang's refusal to rehire the mayor's girlfriend's mother, Shantiel Patton[, ] as a cook, insubordination.” (Id., at 1). Mr. Boyd also states that Mr. Hampton removed $127, 000.00 from an account designated for capital improvements to the Nursing Home (Id., at 1-2). Mr. Boyd further asserts that the funds were “placed in the general fund, which was basically unrestricted, ” and that “[r]ecent audits have cited irregularities in verifying claimed expenses” (Id., at 2).

         At the June 13, 2016, Dermott City Council meeting, the City Council voted to transfer “various amounts” and “to close certain accounts” that were not in use any more (Dkt. No. 40-21, at 2). On June 14, 2016, a letter signed by Mr. Hampton and six of the seven City Council members was sent to Simmons Bank to transfer $127, 370.25 to the “General Fund” account at the First Service Bank in Dermott, Arkansas (Dkt. Nos. 40-22, at 1; 40-23, at 1). In July 2016 Ms. Lang presented documents to the City Council indicating that this transfer had occurred (Dkt. No. 40-17, at 5). She ...


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