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Grant v. Southside Regional Jail

United States District Court, E.D. Virginia, Richmond Division

October 2, 2019

CRYSTAL P. GRANT, Plaintiff,
v.
SOUTHSIDE REGIONAL JAIL, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION

          John A. Gibney, Jr. United States District Judge.

         In this § 1983 action, Crystal P. Grant, a former employee of Southside Regional Jail (the "Jail"), alleges that the defendants[1] fired her based on trumped-up charges of misconduct and in violation of her due process rights. The defendants have moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim. Because Grant has failed to show that she had a property interest in her continued employment with the Jail, the Court will grant the motion to dismiss.

         I. FACTS ALLEGED IN THE COMPLAINT

         The events giving rise to this case began in 2015 with a dispute involving Lieutenant Portray Temple, Grant's co-worker at the Jail. Grant says that Temple "initiated a campaign of retaliatory behavior against Grant designed to adversely affect [her] employment with [the Jail]." (Dk. No. 1, at ¶ 19.) Temple "shut Grant's arm in a paper pass door in 2015," "initiated baseless complaints against [her]," and caused "improper disciplinary actions to be imposed against [her]." (Id. at ¶ 32.) Temple also unsuccessfully sued Grant for defamation.

         In 2016, the defendants and Temple "implemented a campaign of initiating pretextual investigations" to try to find cause to fire Grant. (Id. at |f 23.) The ultimate incident leading to the defendants' decision to fire Grant arose from a verbal altercation between two other employees on January 7, 2017. In a meeting with Captain Anthony Johnson, Grant falsely said that she had not discussed the incident with Officer Kent Hopson. The defendants then fired Grant effective January 31, 2017.

         On February 10, 2017, Grant challenged her dismissal pursuant to the Jail's grievance procedure. A panel heard her case on March 29, 2017. The hearing was not recorded, the Jail did not call any witnesses, and Grant was not allowed to call witnesses or introduce evidence. The panel upheld Grant's termination on May 1, 2017.

         Grant then challenged the panel's decision in the Greensville Circuit Court. The defendants[2] filed a plea in bar. The court dismissed Grant's case with prejudice, finding that Grant was not entitled to the protections of various provisions of the Virginia Code because the Jail does not qualify as a "locality" under Virginia Code § 15.2-1506. Grant appealed to the Supreme Court of Virginia, which declined to hear her appeal. She then filed this action. Her complaint alleges that the defendants denied her due process pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The defendants have moved to dismiss for failure to state a claim, arguing that Grant did not have a property interest in her continued employment with the Jail.

         II. DISCUSSION[3]

         "The first question in any procedural due process analysis is whether the plaintiff has been deprived of a liberty or property interest protected by the Fourteenth Amendment because the requirements of procedural due process only apply when such protected interests are implicated." Davis v. Rao, 982 F.Supp.2d 683, 688 (E.D. Va. 2013), aff'd, 583 Fed.Appx. 113 (4th Cir. 2014). Without a protected liberty or property interest, a fired employee fails to state a claim for deprivation of due process under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Socol v. Albemarle Cty. Sch. Bd, No. 3:18-cv-90, 2019 WL 2610117, at *5-6 (W.D. Va. June 25, 2019). Here, Grant argues that she had a property interest in her continued employment with the Jail, entitling her to due process protections.

         An employee has a property interest in continued employment only when the employee has "a legitimate claim of entitlement to it." Roth, 408 U.S. at 577; Royster v. Bd. of Trs. of Anderson Cty. Sch. Dist. No. Five, 774 F.2d 618, 621 (4th Cir. 1985). Property interests arise from sources outside the Constitution, such as state law. Roth, 408 U.S. at 577. In other words, "[w]hether a plaintiff has a protectable property interest under the Due Process Clause turns upon the plaintiffs property rights under state law." Foreman v. Griffith, 81 Fed.Appx. 432, 436 (4th Cir. 2003). "If an employee is terminable at will under state law, then [s]he has no protected property interest in continued employment." Socol, 2019 WL 2610117, at *6.

         Grant argues that at-will employment is the "exception" in the public employment context, and that "the at-will employment doctrine . . . almost exclusively applies to private sector employees." (Dk. No. 5, at 5.) The Supreme Court of Virginia, however, has applied the at-will presumption to public employees, stressing that "Virginia strongly adheres to the common law employment-at-will doctrine."[4] Cty. of Giles v. Wines, 262 Va. 68. 72, 546 S.E.2d 721, 723 (2001); see also Johnston v. William E. Wood & Assocs., Inc., 292 Va. 222, 225, 787 S.E.2d 103. 104 (2016) ('The at-will doctrine constitutes a cornerstone of the Commonwealth's employment law."). Public employees in Virginia are not immune from the at-will presumption.[5]

         An employee may rebut the at-will presumption by showing "sufficient evidence . . . that the employment is for a definite, rather than an indefinite, term." Wines, 262 Va. at 72, 546 S.E.2d at 723. For example, a contract "stat[ing] that an employee 'will not be disciplined or dismissed from [employment] without a just cause7 create[s] a definite term for the duration of the employment." Id. (second alteration in original) (quoting Norfolk S. Ry. Co. v. Harris, 190 Va. 966. 976, 59 S.E.2d 110, 114(1950)).

         In this case, Grant primarily relies on two sources to show that she had a property interest in continued employment with the Jail: (1) various provisions of the Virginia Code requiring certain state entities to create employee grievance procedures, and (2) the specific grievance procedures set forth in the Jail's personnel manual. Unfortunately for Grant, neither rebuts the presumption of at-will employment.

         A. Statutory ...


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