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McClung v. West Virginia State Police Department

Supreme Court of West Virginia

November 22, 2017

Soraya McClung, Plaintiff Below, Petitioner
v.
West Virginia State Police Department, Defendant Below, Respondent

          (Kanawha County 15-C-22)

          MEMORANDUM DECISION

         Petitioner Soraya McClung, by counsel Mark A. Atkinson and Paul L. Frampton, appeals the Circuit Court of Kanawha County's November 14, 2016, order granting respondent's motion for summary judgment and dismissing her retaliatory discharge claim. Respondent West Virginia State Police ("WVSP"), by counsel Lou Ann S. Cyrus and Kimberly M. Bandy, filed a response. Petitioner filed a reply. On appeal, petitioner argues that the circuit court erred in granting respondent's motion for summary judgment because it erred in finding that she spoke as an employee, not as a private citizen, on a matter of public concern.

         This Court has considered the parties' briefs and the record on appeal. The facts and legal arguments are adequately presented, and the decisional process would not be significantly aided by oral argument. Upon consideration of the standard of review, the briefs, and the record presented, the Court finds no substantial question of law and no prejudicial error. For these reasons, a memorandum decision affirming the circuit court's order is appropriate under Rule 21 of the Rules of Appellate Procedure.

         Petitioner was employed by the WVSP forensic crime laboratory beginning in 1990. In October of 2007, she was appointed as the Director of the WVSP forensic crime laboratory. Sometime during the 2014 legislative session, petitioner began discussions with a West Virginia legislative senator and his staff regarding the possibility of removing the forensic crime laboratory from the organizational structure of the WVSP. Without the WVSP's knowledge, (1) petitioner gathered information regarding the forensic crime laboratory's removal and pay increases for employees, (2) provided the information to the West Virginia Legislature ("legislature"), and (3) testified before legislative committees. As a result of the efforts, a legislative bill was drafted that called for the forensic crime laboratory's removal from the organizational structure of the WVSP. In March of 2014, the WVSP administration met with petitioner wherein petitioner initially denied her involvement with the legislative bill, but ultimately disclosed that she provided information to the Legislature. After meeting with the WVSP administrators, petitioner was reassigned from the Laboratory Director to an Analyst IV position, a demotion. The WVSP stated that petitioner was demoted because she lobbied the Legislature for the forensic crime laboratory's removal from the organizational structure of the WVSP and for a pay increase for laboratory employees.

          In January of 2015, petitioner filed a complaint in the Circuit Court of Kanawha County claiming that her reassignment from the Laboratory Director to Analyst IV constituted "unlawful, retaliatory demotion and constructive discharge." Petitioner claimed that the WVSP violated her right to free speech in terminating her employment for engaging with the legislature on a matter of public concern. In July of 2016, respondent filed a motion for summary judgment. In August of 2016, the circuit court held a hearing on respondent's motion. Following the hearing, on November 14, 2016, the circuit court granted respondent's motion for summary judgment on the basis that petitioner "was speaking as an employee of the WVSP and not as a private citizen." It is from this order that petitioner appeals.

         "A circuit court's entry of summary judgment is reviewed de novo." Syl. Pt. 1, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994). Our review is guided by the principle that

"'[a] motion for summary judgment should be granted only when it is clear that there is no genuine issue of fact to be tried and inquiry concerning the facts is not desirable to clarify the application of the law.' Syllabus Point 3, Aetna Casualty & Surety Co. v. Federal Insurance Co. of New York, 148 W.Va. 160, 133 S.E.2d 770 (1963)." Syllabus Point 1, Andrick v. Town of Buckhannon, 187 W.Va. 706, 421 S.E.2d 247 (1992).

Painter, 192 W.Va. at 190, 451 S.E.2d at 756, Syl. Pt. 2. Furthermore,

"[s]ummary judgment is appropriate where the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the nonmoving party, such as where the nonmoving party has failed to make a sufficient showing on an essential element of the case that it has the burden to prove." Syllabus point 4, Painter v. Peavy, 192 W.Va. 189, 451 S.E.2d 755 (1994).

Syl. Pt. 5, Toth v. Bd. of Parks & Recreation Comm'rs, 215 W.Va. 51, 593 S.E.2d 576 (2003).

The circuit court's function at the summary judgment stage is not to weigh the evidence and determine the truth of the matter but to determine whether there is a genuine issue for trial. We, therefore, must draw any permissible inference from the underlying facts in the light most favorable to the party opposing the motion.

Painter, 192 W.Va. at 192, 451 S.E.2d at 758. Upon our review, we find no error below.

         On appeal, petitioner argues that her reassignment from Laboratory Director to an Analyst IV position constituted an unlawful, retaliatory demotion, and constructive discharge, in violation of Article III, Section 7 of the West Virginia Constitution. Petitioner claims that her free speech rights were violated because she was demoted for "expressing her opinions regarding governmental policies and engaging in lawful political activities."

Article III, Section 7 of the West Virginia Constitution provides that, [n]o law abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press, shall be passed; but the Legislature may, by suitable penalties, restrain the publication or sale of obscene books, papers, or pictures, and provide for the punishment of libel, and defamation of character, and for the recovery, ...

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