U.S. District Judge Carl J. Barbier ICS Media Database
NEW ORLEANS — The St. Tammany Parish sheriff’s motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim was granted in part and denied in part in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana on Dec. 20.
The plaintiffs, including Bryan Moore, all worked as deputy sheriffs for the previous Sheriff Rodney “Jack” Strain, and even supported efforts to get Strain re-elected. They participated in door-to-door campaigns, wore paraphernalia, put out yard signs, went to fundraisers and more.
When current Sheriff Randy Smith won the 2015 election, the plaintiffs sued after Smith would not reinstate them to their positions. They claimed Smith was retaliating against them because they backed Smith’s opponent. They all sued Smith for allegedly violating their First Amendment rights of free speech and political expression.
Moore and another plaintiff, Cheryl Hanson, took things further and sued under the Family and Medical Leave Act, claiming they were entitled to come back to their positions after their leave under Smith since they were employed by the sheriff’s office via Strain when they initially took their leave. Smith filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The court granted it in part and denied it in part.
“Courts have found that a deputy has a valid claim under Section 1983 if he was not re-commissioned because he expressed support for an elected sheriff’s opponent,” the court determined. Still, Smith argued the plaintiffs have yet to sufficiently argue their case. He pointed out that he reinstated hundreds of deputies who served under Strain and whom he would acknowledge as Strain supporters.
The plaintiffs detailed one incident in which they saw Smith at a rally during the campaign, wearing t-shirts that supported Strain. Smith allegedly came up to three of the deputies and said, “You’re fired.” Another point is that there was lots of time from the plaintiffs’ support of Strain during the campaign before any decision Smith made -- it was roughly seven months between the election and Smith’s swearing in. Considering this, the court determined the plaintiffs have proved free speech retaliation claims.
As for qualified immunity, Smith said he can’t be sued in his individual capacity. The court disagreed and said qualified immunity doesn’t apply to him because, among other things, Smith failed to suggest that the plaintiffs were abusive and that their political views impacted their work performance.
Concerning the plaintiffs' state law claims that they are owed damages based on Louisiana statute, the court ruled the language of the statute required those claims to be dismissed.
When it came to the FMLA claims, the court disagreed with Smith and instead determined it’s tough to say at this point if the plaintiffs improperly stated a claim. So, it refused to dismiss this claim.
U.S. District Judge Carl Barbier ruled on the case.