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McCullars v. Maloy

United States District Court, M.D. Florida, Orlando Division

April 2, 2018

B. STANLEY MCCULLARS, Plaintiff,
v.
GRANT MALOY, Defendant.

          ORDER

          PAUL G. BYRON JUDGE

         This cause comes before the Court on Defendant Grant Maloy's Motion to Dismiss (Doc. 13), filed October 6, 2017. Plaintiff responded in opposition on November 6, 2017. (Doc. 22). With briefing complete, the matter is ripe for review.

         I. BACKGROUND[1]

         This action centers on Defendant Grant Maloy's (“Maloy”) termination of Plaintiff B. Stanley McCullars' (“McCullars”) employment with Seminole County, Florida, because of an online post by McCullars. On April 4, 2016, McCullars was hired as Assistant Financial Director for the Clerk of Court and Comptroller of Seminole County, Florida. (Doc. 1, ¶ 9). At all times relevant to this action, Maloy was the Seminole County Clerk of Court. (Id. ¶ 11).

         Plaintiff's online post was apparently precipitated by a March 16, 2017, press conference held by Orange/Osceola County State Attorney Aramis Ayala (“Ayala”). (Id. ¶ 14). At the press conference, Ayala announced that her office would not seek the death penalty under any circumstances in any case. (Id.). Ayala's statements received local and national media coverage, triggered intense public commentary, and led Florida Governor Rick Scott to reassign all capital cases previously assigned to Ayala to a different state attorney. (Id. ¶ 15).

         The social media post at issue was dispatched after 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, March 19, 2017. (Id. ¶¶ 17, 19). McCullars' post (the “Post”) stated: “maybe she [Ayala] should get the death penalty, ” and “she should be tarred and feathered if not hung from a tree.” (Id. ¶ 17). The next day, at 7:00 a.m., the Post was deleted. (Id. ¶ 19). However, before it was deleted, someone had taken a screen image of the Post and shared it with other third parties. (Id. ¶ 20). That same day, March 20, Maloy told McCullars that the Post “was clearly a First Amendment issue, ” and assured McCullars that his job was safe. (Id. ¶ 21). Notwithstanding these assurances, McCullars was placed on administrative leave approximately an hour later. (Id. ¶ 22). On March 21, 2017, Maloy directed the human resources manager to terminate McCullars based solely upon the Post. (Id. ¶ 23). After his termination, McCullars was “instructed that he should provide a resignation letter, which he did, ” allegedly involuntarily. (Id. ¶ 26). At the time of the Post, Defendants did not have a social media policy in place. (Id. ¶ 27).

         The Complaint asserts two 42 U.S.C. § 1983 claims against Defendant Maloy (in his official and individual capacities), alleging that Maloy violated McCullars' First Amendment rights when he terminated McCullars for engaging in protected speech.

         II. STANDARD OF REVIEW

         A Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss tests the legal sufficiency of the plaintiff's complaint. To survive the motion, the complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim is plausible on its face when the plaintiff alleges enough facts to “allow[] 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). The mere recitation of the elements of a claim is not enough, and the district court need not give any credence to legal conclusions that are unsupported by sufficient factual material. Id. District courts must accept all well-pleaded allegations within the complaint and any documents attached thereto as true and must read the complaint in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Hunnings v. Texaco, Inc., 29 F.3d 1480, 1484 (11th Cir. 1994) (per curiam).

         III. DISCUSSION

         Defendant Maloy moves to dismiss Count I based on qualified immunity. (Doc. 13). His motion is due to be denied.

         Qualified immunity protects government officials “from liability for civil damages insofar as their conduct does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800, 818 (1982). To receive qualified immunity, a government official “must first prove that he was acting within the scope of his discretionary authority when the allegedly wrongful acts occurred.” Lee v. Ferraro, 284 F.3d 1188, 1194 (11th Cir. 2002) (internal quotation marks omitted). Plaintiffs do not dispute this first step. (Doc. 22, p. 5.)

         “Once the defendant establishes that he was acting within his discretionary authority, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to show that qualified immunity is not appropriate.” Lee, 284 F.3d at 1194. To do so, the plaintiff must make a two-part showing. The plaintiff must allege that the facts of the case, if proven to be true, would make out a constitutional violation. Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 232 (2009); Beshers v. Harrison, 495 F.3d 1260, 1265 (11th Cir. 2007). The plaintiff must also allege that the constitutional right was “clearly established” at the time of the alleged misconduct. Pearson, 555 U.S. at 232. Because qualified immunity provides a complete defense from suit, “courts should ascertain the validity of a qualified immunity defense as early in the lawsuit as possible.” Gilmore v. Hodges, 738 F.3d 266, 272 (11th Cir. 2013).

         Courts are not required to conduct the qualified immunity analysis in any particular order. Rather district courts are “‘permitted to exercise their sound discretion in deciding which' prong of the inquiry to address first.” Festa v. Santa Rosa Cnty. Fla., 413 Fed.Appx. 182, 185 (11th Cir. 2011) (per curiam) (quoting Pearson v. Callahan, 555 U.S. 223, 236 (2009)). The Court will ...


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