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Billiter v. Jones

United States District Court, S.D. West Virginia, Huntington Division

January 9, 2020

ELIZABETH JONES, Circuit Clerk, Mason County and THE MASON COUNTY COMMISSION, Defendants.



         Pending are Defendant Mason County Commission's Motion to Dismiss and Defendant Elizabeth Jones's Motion for Partial Dismissal, ECF No. 8. For the reasons below, the Court GRANTS IN PART and DENIES IN PART the Motions.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff Lauren Billiter alleges the following facts. Billiter began working in 2013 as a deputy circuit clerk in Mason County, West Virginia. ECF No. 1 ¶¶ 2-3. Deputy circuit clerks are co-employed by the circuit clerk and the Mason County Commission. Id. ¶ 19. In June 2017, Vera Caldwell, who is Billiter's mother and a Democrat, became the circuit clerk of Mason County. Id. ¶¶ 7, 13. In November 2018, Defendant Lauren Jones, a Republican, replaced Caldwell as circuit clerk. Id. ¶ 8. Soon after being sworn in, Jones handed Billiter a letter of termination and said, “[t]his is for your mother.” Id. ¶¶ 11, 16. The defendants then hired three new deputy clerks, all of whom are registered Republicans. Id. ¶¶ 17-18.

         Billiter challenges her termination with claims under the West Virginia Human Rights Act, article III, sections 7, 10, 11, and 16 of the West Virginia Constitution, and the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution per 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Id. ¶ 33. The defendants move to dismiss on three grounds. ECF No. 8. First, the defendants argue Billiter failed to allege an unconstitutional policy or custom to hold the County Commission liable under § 1983. ECF No. 9, at 3-9. Second, the defendants argue Billiter failed to state a claim under the West Virginia Constitution because the County Commission could not be considered the proximate cause of Billiter's termination. Id. at 9-11. Third, the defendants argue Billiter's claims under the West Virginia Human Rights Act fail because she is not a member of a protected class. Id. at 11-14.


         To survive a motion to dismiss, a plaintiff's complaint must contain “a short and plain statement of the claim showing [the plaintiff] is entitled to relief.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). The facts contained in the statement need not be probable, but the statement must contain “enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007). A claim has facial plausibility when “the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows 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) (citation omitted). In considering the plausibility of a plaintiff's claim, the Court must accept all factual allegations in the complaint as true. Id.


         A. The complaint fails to state a claim against the County Commission under § 1983.

         The defendants first argue that Billiter insufficiently alleges the County Commission is liable under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. ECF No. 9, at 3-9. Under Monell v. Department of Social Services, courts may hold a local government entity liable for its officers' actions under § 1983 only if the entity itself caused the deprivation of the plaintiff's rights. Connick v. Thompson, 563 U.S. 51, 60 (2011) (citing Monell, 436 U.S. 658, 692 (1978)). A plaintiff can prevail if she suffered a deprivation of her federal rights and the execution of the government's “policy or custom” inflicted the injury. Lytle v. Doyle, 326 F.3d 463, 471 (4th Cir. 2003). A local government entity can develop a policy or custom in four ways:

(1) through an express policy, such as a written ordinance or regulation; (2) through the decisions of a person with final policymaking authority; (3) through an omission, such as a failure to properly train officers, that “manifest[s] deliberate indifference to the rights of citizens”; or (4) through a practice that is so “persistent and widespread” as to constitute a “custom or usage with the force of law.”

Id. (quoting Carter v. Morris, 164 F.3d 215, 217 (4th Cir. 1999)).

         The first, third, and fourth theories are inapplicable here. Billiter does not allege the existence of an express policy, so the first theory does not apply. The third theory is also inapplicable because Billiter does not allege that a decision by the County Commission reflects deliberate indifference to the risk that allegedly unlawful terminations like Billiter's would follow. See Carter v. Morris, 164 F.3d 215, 218 (4th Cir. 1999) (quoting Bd. of Cnty. Comm'rs v. Brown, 520 U.S. 397, 411 (1997)). Lastly, the complaint does not implicate the fourth theory because Billiter does not allege multiple incidents of unlawful conduct. See Nichols v. Cty. Comm'n of Cabell Cty., No. 3:18-0266, 2018 WL 4016311, at *5 (S.D. W.Va. Aug. 22, 2018) (holding plaintiff sufficiently alleged other instances of unconstitutional conduct for his Monell claim against the County Commission to proceed).

         The Court thus analyzes Billiter's allegations that the Commission permitted or authorized her termination under the second theory. ECF No. 1 ¶ 24. The Commission's liability depends on who had authority to terminate Billiter, and the Court turns to state law for this determination. See Hall v. Marion Sch. Dist. No. 2, 31 F.3d 183, 196 (4th Cir. 1994) (citation omitted). Under West Virginia Code section 7-7-7(h), each circuit clerk has “the authority to discharge any of his or her assistants, deputies or employees by filing with the clerk of the county commission a discharge statement specifying the discharge action . . . .” The Commission argues this subsection grants the circuit clerk sole authority to terminate deputies, so the Commission cannot be liable for the termination. ECF No. 9, at 7. However, the Court rejected this argument in Nichols v. County Commission of Cabell County. 2018 WL 4016311, at ...

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