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Local Fire Protection District Prevails on Summary Judgment

The Monarch Fire Protection District (“The District”), and two members of its Board of Directors (“Directors”), recently prevailed on a Motion for Summary Judgment prepared and filed by Pitzer Snodgrass. District Court Judge Rodney W.  Sippel, issued an Memorandum Order on August 6, 2013, dismissing the pending Complaint, filed by three former chief officers of the District.

 Basic Facts:

The Plaintiffs were terminated in the wake a sexual harassment lawsuit which resulted in a verdict against the District. The Plaintiffs were the top ranking officers of the District at the time that the alleged acts of discrimination and harassment took place. The Board of Directors of the Monarch Fire Protection District voted to terminate the three Plaintiffs, and a fourth officer who was not a party to the instant lawsuit, when the jury verdict against the District in the sexual harassment suit was affirmed in the Missouri Court of Appeals. The Plaintiffs were not members of the local union bargaining unit and did not have a written employment contract with the District. All three Plaintiffs testified that they did not request a pre or post termination hearing from the District or the Directors.

 Legal Allegations:

The Plaintiffs filed their lawsuit, naming as defendants the District and the two Directors, individually, who voted to terminate their employment. The Plaintiffs did not name the Board of Directors, as a whole, or a third board member who did not vote in favor of terminating the Plaintiffs. The Plaintiffs’ Complaint alleged they were terminated in violation of their procedural and substantive due process rights. Namely, the Plaintiffs alleged they had a constitutionally protected property interest in their continued employment at the District.

 Finding of the Trial Judge:

In Judge Sippel’s thorough opinion,  he held the District was protected by the doctrine of sovereign immunity, which shields political subdivisions from liability absent a statutory waiver. Further, Judge Sippel found the named Directors were entitled to official  immunity, because the act of terminating an employee is discretionary in nature, and is shielded by qualified immunity, because the Directors had no objectively reasonable basis to know the termination of Plaintiffs would violate a constitutional right.   Moreover, Judge Sippel found that under Missouri law, Plaintiffs failed to establish the existence of a constitutionally protected property interest in their continued employment. Rather, as Defendants successfully argued, the Plaintiffs were “at will” employees and could be fired for any reason, not illegal.

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