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Williamson v. St. Tammany Parish Protection Fire District No. 12

United States District Court, E.D. Louisiana

May 7, 2018


         SECTION A(5)



         Before the Court is a Motion to Dismiss for Failure to State a Claim (Rec. Doc. 4) filed by Defendant St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 12 (the “District”). Plaintiff Thomas Williamson (“Williamson”) opposes the motion (Rec. Doc. 10) and Defendant has replied. (Rec. Doc. 13). The motion, set for submission on March 21, 2018, is before the Court on the briefs without oral argument. Having considered the motion and memoranda of counsel, the record, and the applicable law, the Court finds that the Defendant's motion is DENIED for the reasons set forth below.

         I. Procedural Background

         Defendant, St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 12, brings this motion to dismiss the claims brought by Plaintiff Thomas Williamson. On or about January 16, 2018, Williamson initially brought this suit in the 22nd Judicial District Court for the Parish of St. Tammany, State of Louisiana. In his state court Petition, Williamson alleges the District infringed upon his Constitutional right to Freedom of Speech giving rise to a cause of action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Williamson further alleges that the District violated Louisiana's Whistleblower Statute, La. R.S. § 23:967(A).

         The District removed this matter to this Court on February 6, 2018 pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1446 due to Williamson's allegations that the District is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. (Rec. Doc. 1). Because Williamson's § 1983 action arises under “the Constitution, laws, or treaties of the United States, ” this Court has original jurisdiction pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331-federal question jurisdiction. Additionally, this Court has supplemental jurisdiction over Williamson's state court claim pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1367-supplemental jurisdiction.

         II. Factual Background

         This matter arises from a string of events that eventually lead to Williamson being put on administrative leave from the St. Tammany Parish Fire District. The following well-pleaded facts are taken from Williamson's Petition for Damages. At this 12(b)(6) motion stage, the Court must view the following facts from Williamson's Petition as true.

         Williamson is a public employee of the District working as a Firefighter/Operator. According to his Petition, Williamson, as an employee of the District, came into information that Fire Chief Stephen Krentel (“Krentel”) and Chief Michael Haley (“Haley”) violated Louisiana Revised Statute § 33:2560 and/or the Fire Department's Policies and SGOs. On or about October 11, 2017, Williamson requested the St. Tammany Parish Civil Service Board (“CSB”) conduct an investigation into the unprofessional conduct of Krentel and Haley.[1] Acting upon Williamson's Request for Investigation, the CSB found reasonable cause to believe that Krentel and Haley committed violations as outlined by the Request for Investigation. By resolution, the CSB passed Williamson's Request for Investigation to the Board of Commissioners of Fire District No. 12 for further investigative action against Krentel and Haley.[2] In conjunction with the resolution, the CSB issued an Order Regarding Retaliation that prohibited the District from committing any retaliatory acts against Williamson in connection with CSB's investigation.[3] (Rec. Doc. 1-1, p. 7).

         On or about January 4, 2018, Williamson received two Notices of Investigation issued by the Board of Commissioners of Fire District No. 12 against Williamson. According to Williamson, the Notices do not name a complainant, are factually vague, and lack specificity as to the conduct of Williamson that allegedly violated policy and gave rise to the investigations. The Notices also placed Williamson on administrative leave with pay pending the outcome of the investigations.[4]The Notices also contain a pre-disciplinary hearing date set for January 25, 2018.[5] Finally, Williamson alleges that due to the timing of the investigations initiated against him and his prior work performance reviews by the District, it can only be concluded that this conduct constitutes reprisal, retaliation, and intimidation. Additionally, Williamson contends that he is statutorily immune from retaliation, reprisal, disciplinary action, and/or threats under Louisiana Revised Statute § 23:967(A), Louisiana's Whistleblower Statute. Moreover, Williamson argues that his accusations against Krentel and Haley constitute protected activities under the First Amendment. According to Williamson, the investigation of his actions and his being placed on administrative leave constitute prohibited acts of retaliation for exercising his First Amendment rights under 42 U.S.C. § 1983.

         III. Legal Standard

         Under well-settled standards governing Rule 12(b)(6) motions to dismiss, a claim may not be dismissed unless it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts that would entitle him to legal relief. In re Supreme Beef Processors, Inc., 468 F.3d 248, 251 (5th Cir. 2006) (citing Benton v. United States, 960 F.2d 19 (5th Cir. 1992)). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, the plaintiff must plead enough facts to “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007)). A claim is facially plausible “when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged.” Id. A court must accept all well-pleaded facts as true and must draw all reasonable inferences in favor of the plaintiff. Lormand v. U.S. Unwired, Inc., 565 F.3d 228, 239 (5th Cir. 2009). But the Court is not bound to accept as true legal conclusions couched as factual allegations. Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678.

         A legally sufficient complaint need not contain detailed factual allegations, but it must go beyond labels, legal conclusions, or formulaic recitations of the elements of a cause of action. Id. In other words, the face of the complaint must contain enough factual matter to raise a reasonable expectation that discovery will reveal evidence of each element of the plaintiff's claim. Lormand, 565 F.3d at 257. If there are insufficient factual allegations to raise a right to relief above the speculation level, or if it is apparent from the face of the complaint that there is an insuperable bar to relief, the claim must be dismissed. Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555.

         IV. Law and Analysis

         The District contends that Williamson's First Amendment freedom of speech retaliation claim should be dismissed for failing to demonstrate that he suffered from an adverse employment action. Specifically, the District argues that being subject to an internal investigation and being placed on administrative leave with pay do not qualify as adverse employment actions under Fifth Circuit precedent. Accordingly, the District argues that Williamson has failed to plead a prima facie case for First Amendment retaliation under § 1983 and his claim warrants dismissal at this stage. In his opposition, Williamson concedes that being placed on administrative leave alone does not constitute an adverse employment action cognizable under § 1983. However, Williamson contends that when viewed collectively, all of the actions taken against him give rise to an adverse employment action.

         As a general rule, the First Amendment bars not only direct limitations on speech, but also adverse government action against an individual because of his or her exercise of First Amendment freedoms. Colson v. Grohman, 174 F.3d 498, 509 (5th Cir. 1999). To succeed on his First Amendment freedom of speech retaliation claim, a plaintiff must show (1) he suffered an adverse employment action; (2) his speech involved a matter of public concern; (3) his interest in the speech outweighs the government's interest in the efficient provision of public service; and (4) the plaintiff's speech motivated the defendant's actions. Breaux v. City of Garland, 205 F.3d 150, 156 (5th Cir. 2000). Here, the District argues that Williamson failed to show that he suffered an adverse employment action.

         Judge Barbier recently provided a thorough analysis of the Fifth Circuit's precedent concerning what constitutes an adverse employment action in Dumas v. St. Tammany Parish Fire District No. 3, No. 17-1025, 2017 WL 1969641, *1 (E.D. La. May 12, 2017). In Dumas, plaintiff James Dumas worked as a firefighter at St. Tammany Parish Fire District No. 3. Dumas had Facebook conversations with community leaders concerning his Fire Chief's alleged traits of racism and incompetence. Dumas was thereafter issued a Notice of Investigation alleging that he was “insubordinate, aired grievances outside the chain of command, and engaged in communications that had the potential to bring public reproach to the department.” Id. at *1. Dumas was ultimately suspended for five shifts without pay. In response, Dumas brought suit against St. Tammany Fire District No. 3, among other defendants, for retaliation under the First Amendment for exercising his First Amendment right to freedom of speech. Id. at *2. The Court dismissed Dumas's retaliation claim on defendant's 12(b)(6) motion. The Court reasoned that Dumas's only allegation of having suffered an adverse employment action was being subject to an internal investigation. Id. at *5 ...

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