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Upshaw v. Erath County

United States District Court, N.D. Texas, Dallas Division

June 3, 2019

ERATH COUNTY, TEXAS; SHERIFF MATT COATES, in his Individual and Official Capacity; and DEE STEPHENS, HERBERT BROWN, JOE BROWN, and SCOTT JACKSON, as County Commissioners, in their Official Capacities, Defendants.



         This Order addresses Defendants Erath County, Texas, Sheriff Matt Coates ("Coates"), Dee Stephens, Herbert Brown, Joe Brown, and Scott Jackson's (collectively, "Defendants") Motion to Dismiss [ECF No. 28], For the following reasons, the Court grants the Motion in part and denies the Motion in part.

         I. BACKGROUND

         Plaintiffs Jason Upshaw and Randy Fowler ("Plaintiffs") are former employees of Erath County. Am. Compl. ¶¶ 12-13. Upshaw served as the Chief Deputy Sheriff of Erath County, and Fowler served as the Captain of Erath County. Id. At the time of Plaintiffs' allegations, Coates was employed by the Erath County District Attorney. Id. ¶ 14. Plaintiffs allege that they were suspended without pay and subsequently terminated as "retribution" for complaining about Coates to the Erath County District Attorney ("DA"). See Id. ¶¶ 18, 21-22, 24.

         Plaintiffs allege that Coates "would frequently visit the Erath County Sheriffs office where Coates would harass and make grossly inappropriate sexually-related remarks to the female employees." Id. ¶ 14. According to Plaintiffs, they were both "sensitive to and protective of the reputation of the Erath County Sheriffs office, which previously been subject to a scandal involving sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior." Id. ¶ 15. Upshaw and Fowler state that they were "dedicated to reporting any sexual harassment they witnessed" and "sought to maintain a professional working environment at the Erath County Sheriffs office." Id. Upshaw complained about Coates's behavior to the DA, and Fowler expressed his support. Id. ¶ 18.

         On or about December 20, 2016, shortly after the former Erath County Sheriffs death by suicide, Coates was appointed interim Sheriff, See Id. ¶¶ 20-21. Plaintiffs allege that within an hour after being sworn in as the new Sheriff, Coates suspended Upshaw and Fowler without pay because they were allegedly "under investigation." Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiffs claim that when they asked Coates why they were under investigation, Coates did not tell them. Id. According to Plaintiffs, they were escorted out of the Sheriffs office in "a hostile and humiliating manner, creating an impression of wrongdoing." Id. ¶23.

         On or about December 20, 2016, Plaintiffs were terminated, and each was given a "General Discharge." Id. ¶ 24. Coates then published this information to the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement ("TCOLE").[1] Id. Plaintiffs further allege that Coates "published, or caused to be published, highly stigmatizing information concerning Upshaw and Fowler to local news outlets[, ] including the Stephenville Empire Tribune newspaper[, which] ran a story including stigmatizing information concerning Upshaw and Fowler." Id. ¶ 23.

         Plaintiffs allege that the manner and circumstances around their termination have so stigmatized them that their reputations have been irreparably harmed and that they suffered severe emotional distress and mental anguish. Id. ¶ 24. According to Plaintiffs, the "General Discharge" was a "proverbial 'kiss of death' for a law enforcement officer," so their employment opportunities have been substantially foreclosed, Id.

         Plaintiffs both requested a name clearing hearing, but were denied their requests. Id. ¶ 25. Plaintiffs allege that they have been given neither notice as to why they were terminated nor the due process hearing to which they were entitled. Id. According to Plaintiffs, "the actual reason why Coates made the stigmatizing remarks about Upshaw and Fowler, and caused their suspensions without pay and terminations, was because Upshaw and Fowler exercised their free speech regarding Coates'[s] disgusting and inappropriate speech and actions." Id. ¶ 24.

         Plaintiffs each assert three causes of action in their First Amended Complaint. In Count I, Plaintiffs assert claims for deprivation of civil rights under 42 U.S, C. § 1983. Plaintiffs allege that Defendants' actions (i) deprived them of their right to free speech as secured by the First Amendment, (ii) deprived them of their procedural due process rights, and (iii) deprived them of their substantive due process rights. In Count II, Plaintiffs assert claims for deprivation of due course of law under Texas Constitution Article I, § 19. In Count III, Plaintiffs assert claims for violations of the Texas Whistleblower Act ("TWA").

         Defendants move to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) for failure to state a claim. Coates asserts a defense of qualified immunity as to the claims brought against him in his individual capacity.


         To defeat a motion to dismiss filed pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), a plaintiff must plead "enough facts to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face." Bell Ad. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 570 (2007); Reliable Consultants, Inc. v. Earle, 517 F.3d 738, 742 (5th Cir. 2008). To meet this "facial plausibility" standard, a plaintiff must "plead[] 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). Plausibility does not require probability, but a plaintiff must establish "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. The court must accept well-pleaded facts as true and view them in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Sonnier v. State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co., 509 F.3d 673, 675 (5th Cir. 2007). However, the court does not accept as true "conclusory allegations, unwarranted factual inferences, or legal conclusions." Ferrer v. Chevron Corp., 484 F.3d 776, 780 (5th Cir. 2007). A plaintiff must provide "more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twomhly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal citations omitted). "Factual allegations must be enough to raise a right to relief above the speculative level ... on the assumption that all the allegations in the complaint are true (even if doubtful in fact)." Id. (internal citations omitted).

         The ultimate question is whether the complaint states a valid claim when viewed in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. Great Plains Tr. Co. v. Morgan Stanley Dean Witter & Co., 313 F.3d 305, 312 (5th Cir. 2002). At the motion to dismiss stage, the court does not evaluate the plaintiffs likelihood of success. It only determines whether the plaintiff has stated a claim upon which relief can be granted. Mann v. Adams Realty Co., 556 F.2d 288, 293 (5th Cir. 1977).

         III. ANALYSIS

         A. 42 U.S.C. ...

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