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Wood v. City of Farmington

United States District Court, D. New Mexico

July 16, 2019

JASON WOOD, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF FARMINGTON, FARMINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT, STEVE HEBBE, in his individual capacity, DAVID GRIEGO, in his individual capacity, CORBAN DAVIS, in his individual capacity, MATTHEW VIETH, in his individual capacity, KYLE DOWDY, in his individual capacity, and DENNIS RONK, in his individual capacity, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

          ROBERT C. BRACK SENIOR U.S. DISTRICT JUDGE

         Plaintiff Jason Wood worked as an officer in the K-9 unit of the Farmington Police Department (FPD) until he resigned from his position in early 2018. On May 29, 2018, Plaintiff filed this lawsuit against FPD, the City of Farmington (the City), and several officers in his supervisory chain of command. Plaintiff alleges that Defendants subjected him to unfounded discipline and took other adverse employment actions that caused him to resign from his position. Plaintiff raises various federal and state law claims for damages based on Defendants' conduct.

         On November 21, 2018, Defendants moved to dismiss Plaintiff's federal substantive due process claims on qualified immunity grounds and the majority of Plaintiff's state law claims for failure to state a claim. (Doc. 31.) Defendants also separately moved for summary judgment on Plaintiff's federal procedural due process and conspiracy claims as well as Plaintiff's state law claim for breach of an implied contract. (Doc. 32.)

         Having considered the motions, the briefing, and the relevant law, the Court concludes that Defendants are entitled to summary judgment on Plaintiff's federal procedural due process (Count I) and conspiracy claims (Count II). With regard to Plaintiff's two substantive due process claims, Plaintiff has stipulated to the dismissal of Count III, and the Court finds that Count IV is subject to dismissal for failure to state a claim. Because there are no remaining federal claims in this matter, the Court declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over the remainder of Plaintiff's complaint. In sum, the Court GRANTS IN PART Defendants' motion to dismiss (Doc. 31) and motion for summary judgment (Doc. 32). Counts I though IV of Plaintiff's complaint are hereby dismissed with prejudice and Counts V through IX are dismissed without prejudice.

         DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT

         Defendants seek summary judgment on three of Plaintiff's claims: (1) procedural due process violation under 42 U.S.C § 1983 (Count I); (2) conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (Count II); and (3) breach of an implied contract of employment under New Mexico law (Count V). (Doc. 32.)

         I. Background[1]

         Before turning to the facts concerning Plaintiff's employment with FPD, the Court sets forth the relevant provisions of the City's personnel rules and FPD's disciplinary procedures that the parties raised in their briefing.

         A. FPD's Disciplinary Procedures Policy and the City's Personnel Rules

         FPD maintains a policy governing disciplinary procedures, Policy No. 126-01, that provides “guidelines for supervisors in carrying out disciplinary action” and “prescribes progressive discipline with a recurring employee problem.” (Doc. 37-2 at 1.) Pursuant to Policy No. 126-01, “the supervisor initiating [any disciplinary] action will make recommendations as to the appropriate discipline to be taken.” (Id. at 2.) “Those recommendations are reviewed through the chain of command for suggestions or comments, with the [FPD] Chief of Police having final authority.” (Id.) Policy No. 126-01 specifies that FPD's procedures and criteria for discipline, as well as those for grievances or appeals of disciplinary action, are governed by the City's Personnel Rules. (Id. at 1-2.)

         Section 21-7-1 of the City's Personnel Rules provides that employees “may be disciplined for cause.” (Doc. 37-4 at 1.) “Cause for disciplinary action includes acts involving unsatisfactory work performance by an employee or employee conduct on or off the job which would create the appearance of impropriety . . . .” (Id.) The City's Personnel Rules provide a non-exhaustive list of reasons for which an employee may be disciplined. (Id. at 1-2.)

         Depending on the type and egregiousness of the conduct necessitating disciplinary action, the City's Personnel Rules authorize department heads or supervisors to take four actions: reprimand, suspension, demotion, and/or dismissal. (Id. §§ 21-7-3-21-7-7.) Specifically, FPD may issue a verbal or written reprimand to an employee for cause. (Id. § 21-7-4.) FPD may suspend a regular non-probationary employee for cause without pay for a period of up to three working days.[2](Id. § 21-7-5(a).) Any employee who chooses to appeal a suspension of less than three days “to the city manager must do so within two working days of the notice of suspension.” (Id.) Next, FPD may also “request that an employee be demoted for cause to a lower classification.” (Id. § 21-7-6.) An employee is entitled to a pre-demotion meeting, but may waive that right in writing. (Id.) Lastly, FPD may “recommend that an employee be dismissed for cause.” (Id. § 21-7-7(a).) An employee is entitled to a pre-termination meeting with the department head and a representative of the personnel division, but may waive that right in writing. (Id.) FPD shall submit findings and recommended action to the city manager, who shall review the findings and may then either dismiss the employee or take other appropriate action. (Id. § 21-7-7(c).)

         An employee may appeal a suspension, a demotion, or a dismissal. (Id. §§ 21-7-9-21-7-10.) As for written reprimands, an employee may file a grievance. (Id. § 21-10-4.) The Personnel Rules provide specific procedures for grievances and appeals, which the Court will address as necessary in its analysis. (Id. §§ 21-7-10-21-7-11, 21-10-5.)

         B. Plaintiff's Employment

         FPD hired Plaintiff as a police officer on March 20, 2012. (Doc. 39-B.) The events at issue in this lawsuit occurred in 2017 and early 2018. In 2017, Plaintiff was the Canine Coordinator of FPD's K-9 unit. (See Doc. 39-C.) According to FPD Policy No. 241-06, the Canine Coordinator is “an Officer in charge of the canine unit as designated” and “can authorize, deny, or restrict the involvement of police canine teams” in field operations. (Doc. 37-6 at 1.)

         On November 7, 2017, FPD disciplined Plaintiff as a result of an Internal Affairs (IA) investigation that found Plaintiff had engaged in “unbecoming conduct.” (Doc. 39-C at 1.) The November 2017 Notice of Corrective/Disciplinary Action summarized the incident for which Plaintiff was disciplined as follows:

At the completion of a vehicle pursuit, Officer Wood was heard voicing inappropriate and demeaning comments directed at the department related to a command decision to terminate further efforts to subdue a wanted suspect. The comments were captured on his body-worn camera system. The comments were made in the presence of a fellow officer as well as members of other agencies involved in the incident.

(Id.) As a result of this incident, Plaintiff was removed as the Canine Coordinator of the K-9 unit. (Id.) He was also issued a one-day suspension without pay, which was deferred for a period of six months. (Id.) Plaintiff was required to participate in the City's Employee Assistance Program (EAP). (Id.) If Plaintiff participated in the EAP and there were no other disciplinary issues for six months, the notice indicated that the one-day suspension would be reduced to a letter of reprimand. (Id.) As a result of being removed as the Canine Coordinator, Plaintiff lost $1.60 per hour from his regular pay. (Doc. 37-1 ¶ 3.)

         The November 2017 notice included a section containing Plaintiff's comments regarding the discipline imposed and the incident. (Doc. 39-C at 2.) Plaintiff stated: “I am happy to still be in the unit as far as a strictly K9 handler capacity. . . . We as a unit have taken this opportunity to turn this into a positive and I am proud of the fellow handlers. I apologize for my words during the critical incident and will continue to work hard.” (Id.)

         Approximately two months later, on January 31, 2018, FPD disciplined Plaintiff for “unsatisfactory performance” following a second Internal Affairs (IA) investigation. (Doc. 39-D at 1.) The January 2018 Notice of Corrective/Disciplinary Action indicated that the discipline was being imposed due to Plaintiff's actions during a November 29, 2017 incident in which he responded to the Rimrock Inn to help another officer requesting back-up while arresting a resistant male subject. (Id.) During the incident, Plaintiff deployed his police service dog. (Id.) The January 2018 notice stated that:

Ofc. J. Wood's decision to remove his canine from his unit put him at a disadvantage by tying up one of his hands and limiting all other options at his disposal. He also made the decision to un-holster his service hand gun. Ofc. J. Wood's hands were both occupied when trying to give commands and deal with an uncooperative subject. The assisting officer is calm and trying to de-escalate the incident while Ofc. J. Wood is heard yelling in the background. Ofc. J. Wood arrived on scene and took control without knowing all of the events that unfolded prior to his arrival. Ofc. J. Wood would have been of more assistance if he had left his [police service dog (PSD)] in the patrol unit and went hands-on with the subject. Additionally, Ofc. J. Wood's commands to the subject to “get down” and then to the officer to “let him up, ” . . . were confusing. Following the incident, Ofc. J. Wood failed to document pertinent information in his report detailing the actions of the subject in an attempt to justify his use of a canine to apprehend a suspect.

(Id. at 1-2.) The January 2018 notice also included a section containing Plaintiff's comments regarding the discipline imposed. (Id. at 2.) Plaintiff stated: “Thank you for my time on this dept as a K9 handler. It was my greatest achievement. Thank you for the thoughts of taking care of PSD Cas after his retirement. Thank you for not finding Babodi in violation.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff disputes the events that transpired during the second IA investigation. Citing to portions of his verified complaint, [3] Plaintiff states that after the incident at the Rimrock Inn, Defendant Lt. Matt Veith called Plaintiff and notified him that he was being removed from his duties because of “red flags” concerning job performance. (Doc. 1 (Compl.) ¶ 42.) Plaintiff questioned Lt. Veith regarding these red flags, but Lt. Veith gave no response and subsequently initiated the second IA investigation. (Id. ¶¶ 43-44.)

         Defendant Corban Davis was also involved in the November 2017 incident. (Id. ¶ 45.) According to Plaintiff, Davis failed to appropriately document the incident, but was given additional time to produce the missing documentation. (Id.) FPD did not discipline Davis for his failure to appropriately document the incident. (Id.) Plaintiff further asserts that Davis prepped other officers on what to say to investigators during the IA investigation and specifically, to cast blame on Plaintiff for the November 2017 incident. (Id. ΒΆ 46.) In so doing, Plaintiff asserts that Davis violated FPD ...


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