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Hernandez v. Ellins

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

February 21, 2018

LYNN ELLINS, et al., Defendants.


          MARTHA VÁZQUEZ, United States District Judge

         THIS MATTER comes before the Court on Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Counts I, II and VIII of Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint and for Qualified Immunity and Memorandum in Support Thereof [Doc. 24]. The Court, having considered the motion, briefs, and relevant law, and being otherwise fully informed, finds that the Motion is well-taken and will be granted.


         The facts as alleged by Plaintiff in his Second Amended Complaint [Doc. 19] are as follows. In September 2014, Defendant was hired as a temporary employee in the Dona Ana County Clerk's Office (“Clerk's Office”). Doc. 19 ¶ 11. His assignment was to develop policies and procedures across polling places in the county, which was the same type of work that he had done with the Clerk's Office for over 20 years. Id. ¶. Defendant expected his temporary assignment to continue through February of 2016. Id.

         In March of 2015, Defendant Scott Krahling, Chief Deputy Clerk for Dona Ana County, announced to the employees of the Clerk's Office that he intended to run in 2016 for the position of County Clerk for Dona Ana County. Id. ¶ 12. Also in March of 2015, Defendant Lynn Ellins, Clerk for Dona Ana County, announced to the employees of the Clerk's Office that he intended to serve in the position of Chief Deputy County Clerk for Dona Ana County for two years following the 2016 election, and to thereafter run for the position of Dona Ana County Commission[er] in the 2018 election. Id.

         On April 15, 2015 at 2:00 p.m., Plaintiff “casually mentioned” to Defendant Krahling that he was considering running in 2016, as a Republican, for Dona Ana County Clerk. Id. ¶ 14. Thereafter, Defendant Krahling “approached” Plaintiff through a Facebook posting on April 16, 2015, and “confronted” Plaintiff in Plaintiff's office on April 17, 2015. Id. ¶¶ 15-16. Plaintiff “was subjected to” the following: he was locked out of the computer system; clerk staff “were instructed” not to speak to him; clerk staff did not speak to him; and Defendant Krahling did not speak to him for over two months. Id. ¶ 17. Plaintiff filed “several” EEOC complaints outlining his concerns, which complaints were “largely disregarded.” Id. ¶ 20.

         Based on this series of events, Plaintiff claims that:

Defendants[] improperly harassed Plaintiff and subjected him to harassment, retaliation, hostile work environment and outrageous conduct in retaliation against Plaintiff associated with Plaintiff's constitutionally protected action of seeking support in his off duty hours for his possible candidacy for Dona Ana County Clerk in the 2016 election after Plaintiff mentioned his interest in running for this political position.

Id. ¶ 18.

         Plaintiff's Second Amended Complaint further alleges that, on May 11, 2015, Maria Ceniceros approached Plaintiff and asked if he was interested in making extra money by cashing fraudulently obtained United States Treasury refund checks. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff agreed to go along with the scheme for the purposes of getting more information and speaking out about this criminal activity to law enforcement. Id. ¶ 22. Plaintiff spoke out about his concerns to law enforcement after the end of his work day. Id. After his initial statement to law enforcement, Plaintiff's continued activities related to the ongoing crimes were directed by federal and local government. Id. ¶ 24.

         On Friday, May 29, 2015, three people were arrested based on Plaintiff's statements to law enforcement. Id. ¶ 25. Over the weekend, Plaintiff gave an interview to the Las Cruces Sun-News about the criminal activity in the Clerk's Office. Id. ¶ 26. On Monday, June 1, 2015, as three more employees of the Clerk's Office were being arrested, Defendant Ellins stopped at Plaintiff's desk, pointed his finger into Plaintiff's face, and said, “either you're dead or you're next.” Id. ¶ 27. Also that day, the Sun-News ran the article on the issues in the Clerk's Office, which article included the interview with Plaintiff, and the website ran an article citing the Sun-News article. Id. ¶ 27.

         Thereafter, on June 4, 2015, Dona Ana County terminated Plaintiff's employment. Id. ¶ 28. Plaintiff claims that Dona Ana County's termination of his employment was done “in retaliation for the public harassment caused to Lynn Ellins, associated with [Plaintiff]'s Constitutionally protected action of speaking out about criminal activity that was taking place in the Dona Ana County Clerk's Office.” Id.

         On August 17, 2015, Plaintiff commenced the instant action against the Board of County Commissioners for Dona Ana County and the following individuals, in their individual capacity and in their official capacity[1]: Lynn Ellins (Dona Ana County Clerk), Julia Brown (Dona Ana County Manager), Dave Medieros (Dona Ana Interim County Attorney), and Scott Krahling (Dona Ana County Chief Deputy Clerk). In his Second Amended Complaint, Plaintiff sets forth eight claims against all of the Defendants, which include, inter alia, two claims brought pursuant to 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, for “Deprivation of First Amendment Right of Freedom of Association” (Count I), and for “Deprivation of First Amendment Right of Freedom of Speech” (Count II), and a claim “Pled in the Alternative to the Second Cause of Action Deprivation of First Amendment Right of Freedom of Speech” (Count VIII).

         On March 22, 2016, Defendants filed their motion to dismiss Counts I, II, and VIII of the Second Amended Complaint, arguing that Plaintiff fails to state a claim on the merits against Defendants, and that Plaintiff's claims against the individual Defendants are barred by qualified immunity. Plaintiff opposes the motion to dismiss.


         Plaintiff claims that, under 42 U.S.C. Section 1983, both the individual Defendants and Dona Ana County violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of association and freedom of speech and that, even if Defendants are entitled to qualified immunity on his First Amendment claims, he nonetheless is entitled to a “nominal judgment in the amount of $1.00 (one dollar) . . . so that the case law on this issue of Freedom of Speech under the circumstances of this cause of action can be developed so that there is not a stagnation of the law in this area.” Id. ΒΆ 65. Defendants move to dismiss, arguing that Plaintiff has failed to state a plausible claim for relief against any of the individual Defendants or against Dona Ana County, and that, further, Plaintiff's claims ...

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