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Benfield v. Magee

United States District Court, W.D. Louisiana, Shreveport Division

July 18, 2018





         Patrick Benfield ("Benfield") and Brian Warren ("Warren") were paramedics with the Desoto Parish Emergency Medical Service ("EMS") where Joe Magee ("Magee") was the administrator. [Record Document 1 at 2-3]. Magee fired Benfield and Warren after the latter wrote a letter critical of the management of the Desoto Parish EMS to a member of the Desoto Parish Police Jury. [Id. at 5, 7]. Plaintiffs filed this 42 U.S.C. § 1983 action alleging violations of their free speech rights and of Benfield's right of free association. [Id. at 10-11]. Benfield also asserted a claim under Louisiana's whistleblower statute. [Id. at 11]. Magee responded with the instant motion to which the parties have filed an opposition and a reply. [Record Documents 5, 14, and 17]. Benfield has abandoned his Louisiana whistleblower claim, and Magee is entitled to qualified immunity on Benfield's free association claim; the motion is GRANTED as to these claims. Because Magee's motion does not address Benfield's free speech claim, the motion is DENIED as to that claim. The motion is also DENIED as to Warren's free speech claim because the facts alleged establish that his letter was protected speech.

         I. Background

         In Louisiana, paramedics must complete annual training and biennial recertification, the records of which are sent to the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians ("NREMT"). [Record Document 1 at 3]. The recertification forms include a box for the medical director to check, indicating his approval of the training hours completed. [Id. at 4]. Allegedly at Magee's instruction, Warren would check this box when completing the NREMT forms without first receiving approval from Joseph Farquhar ("Farquhar"), the medical director. [Id. at 4, 6]. Benfield was among the employees on whose NREMT forms Warren checked off Farquhar's approval, but Benfield did not personally participate in Warren's checking off Farquhar's approval. [Id. at 6-7].

         In June 2015, Warren sent a letter to Jimbo Davlin ("Davlin"), a member of the Desoto Parish Police Jury (the "Davlin Letter"). [Id. at 5]. The letter criticized practices at the Desoto Parish EMS and recommended multiple changes, including replacing certain administrators. [Record Document 1-2]. Allegedly, Magee then retaliated against Warren. [Record Document 1 at 5].

         Eighteen months later, the new co-medical director of the Desoto Parish EMS asked Warren how he and Benfield had become recertified. [Id. at 6]. Warren explained that, per longstanding practice, he had checked the box on the NREMT forms indicating Farquhar's approval of the training hours. [Id.]. A week and a half later, Magee allegedly told Warren to quit "before something bad happened." [Id.]. Around the same time, Magee asked Benfield to attest that Magee had not authorized Warren indicate Farquhar's approval on the NREMT forms. [Id. at 6-7]. Benfield refused. [Id. at 7]. Magee then terminated both men for falsifying records. [Id. at 7-8].

         II. Law and Analysis

         A. Motion to Dismiss Standard

         In order to survive a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a plaintiffs complaint must "state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Ail. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). In determining whether the plaintiff has stated a plausible claim, the court must construe the complaint in the light most favorable to her, see In re Great Lakes Dredge &Dock Co. ULC, 624 F.3d 201, 210 (5 th Cir. 2010), and accept as true all well-pleaded factual allegations, see Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555. However, "[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice." Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678 (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555). Thus, the Court does not have to accept as true "conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions." Plotkin v. IP Axess Inc, 407 F.3d 690, 696 (5th Cir. 2005) (citing Southland Sec. Corp. v. INS pire Ins. Sols, Inc., 365 F.3d 353, 361 (5th Cir. 2004)).

         B. Warren's Claim

         Magee argues that Warren's First Amendment claim fails because he did not speak on a matter of public concern and because he insufficiently alleged a causal connection between the Davlin Letter and his termination nineteen months later. [Record Document 5-1 at 10-15]. Warren contends that he spoke on a matter of public concern because the Davlin Letter addressed EMS operations. [Record Document 14 at 8-14]. He also insists that he adequately pleaded causation by identifying a series of allegedly retaliatory actions that occurred between the date of the Davlin Letter and his termination. [Id. at 14-16].

         To establish a claim for retaliatory termination following an exercise of free speech, a plaintiff must show that

(1) she suffered an adverse employment action; (2) her speech involved a matter of public concern; (3) her interest in commenting on matters of public concern outweighed the defendant's interest in promoting workplace efficiency; and (4) her speech was a substantial or motivating factor in the defendant's adverse employment action.

Burnside v. Kaelin, 773 F.3d 624, 626 (5th Or. 2014) (citing DePree v. Saunders, 588 F.3d 282, 286-87 (5th Cir. 2009); Click v. Copeland, 970 F.2d 106, 113 (5th Or. 1992)).

         1. Adverse Employment Action

         Discharge is a paradigmatic adverse employment action. Serna v. City of San Antonio, 244 F.3d 479, 483 (5th Cir. 2001) (citing Breaux v. City of Garland, 205 F.3d 150, 157 (5th Cir. 2000)). Because Magee fired Warren, this element is satisfied.

         2. Speech Involving a Matter of Public Concern

         The second prong requires Warren to have spoken "as a citizen on a matter of public concern." Garcetti v. Ceballos,547 U.S. 410, 418 (2006) (citing Pickering v. Bd. of Educ,391 U.S. 563, 568 (1968)). The Fifth Circuit approaches this question of law through two inquiries: (1) whether the plaintiff spoke in his "capacity as citizen, not employee" and (2) whether his speech's subject matter was of public concern. Gibson v. Kilpatrick (Gibson III),838 F.3d 476, ...

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