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Benfield v. Magee

United States Court of Appeals, Fifth Circuit

December 17, 2019

PATRICK A. BENFIELD; BRIAN SCOTT WARREN, Plaintiffs - Appellees
v.
JOE D. MAGEE, Defendant-Appellant

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Western District of Louisiana

          Before STEWART, CLEMENT, and HO, Circuit Judges.

          EDITH BROWN CLEMENT, CIRCUIT JUDGE

         Plaintiffs Brian Warren and Patrick Benfield sued their boss, Joe Magee, claiming that he fired them for exercising their First Amendment free-speech and free-association rights. Magee moved to dismiss their claims based on qualified immunity. The district court held that Magee was entitled to qualified immunity for Benfield's free-association claim but not for Warren's or Benfield's free-speech claims. Magee, on interlocutory appeal, challenges this denial of qualified immunity. We affirm in part, reverse in part, and remand for further proceedings.

         I.

         Warren and Benfield worked in Louisiana as paramedics for the Desoto Parish Emergency Medical Services. Louisiana paramedics must complete annual recertification training and submit reports of this training to a certification organization. The Desoto Parish EMS Medical Director had to sign these annual reports before submission. Joe Magee, the Desoto Parish EMS Administrator, would allegedly sign these reports on behalf of the Medical Director. When the reports were computerized in 2007, Magee allegedly instructed Warren to "check[] off the box for [the Medical Director's] approval of the training hours," which he did. This box was apparently used in lieu of a physical signature.

         In June 2015, Warren sent a letter to a member of the Desoto Parish Police Jury[1] suggesting changes to Desoto Parish EMS personnel, procedures, and policy. After submitting this letter, Warren claims that "Magee and some of his underlings" harassed him. This harassment included criticizing Warren's religious beliefs, harassing him about going back to school, telling him to go to counseling or be fired, denying him a promotion, accusing him of acts of terrorism for hiring an attorney to sue the Desoto Parish EMS, accusing him of having women at the station for sexual purposes, and encouraging him to quit.

         In December 2016, the new co-Medical Director asked Warren how he and Benfield had been recertified. Warren told him about the practice of checking the box for the Medical Director's approval. Shortly thereafter, "[Magee] told [Warren] that he needed to quit 'before something bad happened.'" Warren does not explain what "something bad" might mean.

         Later that month, Magee allegedly asked Benfield to provide a statement that Warren was not authorized to check the box for the Medical Director and that Magee had not authorized Warren to do so. Benfield refused because, according to him, the statement would have been false. Magee then suspended Warren and Benfield in early January 2017 for falsifying documents and training records. On January 26, 2017, Magee fired them.

         Warren and Benfield sued Magee under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alleging (1) that Magee "retaliated against [Warren] for expressing, in his capacity as a private citizen, matters of public concern" in his June 2015 letter to the Desoto Parish Police Jury; and (2) that Magee "retaliated against [Benfield] due to [Magee's] perception that [Benfield] was allied with [Warren] and because [Benfield] would not provide false statements to the authorities or to [Magee] concerning [Warren]." Benfield also alleged a state-law whistleblower claim, but has since abandoned it.

         Magee moved to dismiss under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6), arguing that he was entitled to qualified immunity because neither Warren nor Benfield adequately pleaded a constitutional violation and any alleged constitutional right was not clearly established. The district court granted the motion in part and denied it in part. The court held that Warren stated a free-speech claim and that clearly established law prohibited Magee from firing Warren for sending his June 2015 letter. But the court declined to consider whether to dismiss Benfield's free-speech claim because Magee had challenged only Benfield's free-association claim.

         Magee appealed. He seeks interlocutory review of the district court's denial of qualified immunity for both free-speech claims.[2]

         II.

         On interlocutory appeal, we review a district court's denial of a qualified-immunity-based motion to dismiss de novo. Club Retro, L.L.C. v. Hilton, 568 F.3d 181, 194 (5th Cir. 2009). We accept all well-pleaded facts as true, drawing all reasonable inferences in the nonmoving party's favor. Id. We do not, however, accept as true legal conclusions, conclusory statements, or "'naked assertion[s]' devoid of 'further factual enhancement.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 557 (2007)). To survive a Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss, a plaintiff must plead factual allegations that, if true, "raise a right to ...


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