Eleventh Circuit Rejects Deputy’s First and Fourteenth Amendment Claims Against Sheriff

In Ezell v. Wynn, No. 13-15851, 2015 WL 5574811 (11th Cir. Sept. 23, 2015) the Eleventh Circuit affirmed the United States District Court for the Middle District of Georgia’s grant of summary judgment in favor of the defendants. The plaintiff, a Muscogee County deputy sheriff, brought First and Fourteenth Amendment claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (2012) against Sheriff John Darr and the Columbus Consolidated Government.

The plaintiff, who worked for the Muscogee County Sheriff’s Office since 1983, became the first woman to obtain the rank of major in the Sheriff’s Office, and later became third-in-command for the entire Sheriff’s Office. Under then-Sheriff Johnson’s administration, the plaintiff supervised the Muscogee County Jail and served on the command staff. In 2008, John Darr, one of the defendants, ran for election against Sheriff Johnson. The plaintiff demonstrated her political support for Sheriff Johnson in a number of ways. Defendant Darr won the election, and reorganized the office upon becoming sheriff. He replaced the entire command staff, including the plaintiff. The plaintiff was then transferred to Recorder’s Court, a position normally occupied by lower-ranking deputies. The plaintiff, along with two others, filed this action in the Middle District of Georgia. She asserted claims for First and Fourteenth Amendment violations arising out of the defendant’s adverse personnel decisions. The district court granted summary judgment in favor of the defendants for both claims brought by the plaintiff.

First, the Eleventh Circuit addressed the plaintiff’s First Amendment claim. The First Amendment protects public employees from adverse employment actions based on political patronage, but only if political loyalty is an inappropriate requirement for the effectiveness of an employment position. The court reviewed the development of recent case law on this topic. Under the Elrod-Branti standard, developed by the Supreme Court in two decisions, an employee’s substantive responsibilities are the determinative factor in deciding whether political affiliation is an appropriate requirement for employment. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976); Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980). Circuit precedent employing this test has determined that a deputy sheriff fails, as matter of law, to plead a First Amendment claim for adverse employment decisions when her duties and powers are the same as the sheriff’s. Since, under Georgia law, deputy sheriffs are empowered with the same rights and responsibilities as a sheriff, the court held that it was is bound to conclude, categorically, that political loyalty is an appropriate requirement for deputy sheriffs in Georgia. Therefore, the grant of summary judgment for the defendants was appropriate.

The court then considered the plaintiff’s Fourteenth Amendment claim. Since the plaintiff sought to demonstrate gender discrimination through circumstantial evidence, a three-step burden-shifting process governed this analysis: (1) the plaintiff must establish a prima facie case; (2) the employer must rebut the presumption with legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons; and (3) the plaintiff must then discredit the proffered nondiscriminatory reasons by showing they are pretextual. The court noted that, although the plaintiff established a prima facie case of discrimination due to the adverse employment action, the defendants met their burden of providing a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. Defendant Darr was unsatisfied with the plaintiff’s supervision of the jail, and decided to reorganize management. The burden then shifted back to the plaintiff to prove that these proffered reasons were pretextual. The plaintiff failed to establish any pretext for defendant Darr’s reasoning, especially since other deputies suffered similar adverse actions when he took charge. The court affirmed the grant of summary judgment on this claim, since the plaintiff failed to meet this burden under the burden-shifting framework.

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