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Steiger v. Presque Isle County

United States District Court, E.D. Michigan, Northern Division

November 8, 2016

RICHARD KEVIN STEIGER, Plaintiff,
v.
PRESQUE ISLE COUNTY, et al., Defendants.

          OPINION AND ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANTS' MOTION TO DISMISS, GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART PLAINTIFF'S MOTION TO AMEND, SETTING DEADLINE, AND EXTENDING SCHEDULING ORDER

          THOMAS L. LUDINGTON United States District Judge

         Plaintiff Richard Kevin Steiger, the County Prosecutor for Defendant Presque Isle County, initiated the above-captioned matter by filing his complaint on November 24, 2015. See Compl., ECF No. 1. Plaintiff alleges that, in response to his attempts to expose corruption in the Presque Isle County Sheriff's Department, Defendant Presque Isle and various members of the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners denied him a raise for the 2015 calendar year and voted to discontinue using him as civil counsel. Plaintiff alleges that these actions constitute a violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights to free speech and to petition government under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, and a violation of the Michigan Whistleblowers' Protection Act (“WPA”), Michigan Compiled Law § 15.361.

         On August 1, 2016 Plaintiff Steiger filed a motion for leave to file a first amended complaint. See ECF No. 15. Plaintiff seeks to add § 1983 claims against two additional parties, Presque Isle Sherriff Robert Paschke and Judge Donald McLennan, alleging that they too violated his First Amendment rights to petition government and to be free from retaliation. See Mot to Amend ¶ 7. Plaintiff also seeks to amend his complaint to add facts supporting a claim of constructive discharge. Id. at ¶ 4 (“on or about March 4, 2016, Plaintiff issued a Press Release which indicated that he will not be seeking re-election as a result of the unlawful retaliation that he has endured while employed as a prosecutor for Defendant Presque Isle County.”). On August 24, 2016 Defendants filed a motion to dismiss Plaintiff's complaint, arguing in part that the individual Defendants are entitled to legislative immunity. See ECF No. 20. For the reasons stated below, both motions will be denied.

         I.

         Plaintiff Steiger, a resident of Rogers City, Michigan, has served as the elected Prosecutor for Defendant Presque Isle County since 2006. See Compl. ¶¶ 1-2, 13. Defendant Presque Isle County is a governmental entity within the State of Michigan. At all relevant times, the named Defendants served on the Presque Isle County Board of Commissioners: Defendant Carl Altman as the chairman, Defendant Robert Schell as the vice-chairman, and Defendant Stephen Lang and Defendant Michael Darga as commissioners (altogether “Defendant Commissioners”). Id. at ¶¶ 3-6. Plaintiff alleges that during the events in question Defendants Commissioners were acting under color of law within the scope of their duties and within their individual and official capacities.[1] Id.

         A.

         Over the course of his tenure as prosecutor for Presque Isle County, Plaintiff Steiger alleges that he became “an outspoken critic of police officers and/or police agencies who attempt to trample on the rights of citizens, specifically but not limited to, the Presque Isle County Sheriff's Department.” Compl. ¶ 14. In a separate lawsuit filed by Plaintiff against various officers affiliated with the Michigan State Police (“MSP”) and the Huron Undercover Narcotics Team (“HUNT”), a taskforce that included members of the Presque Isle County Sheriff's Department, Plaintiff alleged that he was maliciously investigated and prosecuted for fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs in retaliation for his criticism of their conduct and procedures. See Steiger v. Hahn, Case No. 14-cv-14110 (E.D. Mich., October 24, 2014), ECF No. 1. That lawsuit was dismissed shortly after the commencement of discovery upon the stipulation of the parties due to “unforeseen medical circumstances.” Id. at ECF No. 28.

         The lawsuit was subsequently refiled on July 27, 2015. See Steiger v. Hahn, Case No. 15-cv-12627 (E.D. Mich., July 27, 2015). Plaintiff attempted to add claims against Sheriff Paschkie and Undersheriff Brebaker, which were dismissed as they were barred by the statute of limitations. Id. at ECF No. The remaining Defendants' motion for summary judgment was granted on September 30, 2016 after the Court determined that a reasonable officer could have concluded that probable cause existed for the investigation, arrest, and prosecution of Steiger for fraudulently obtaining prescription drugs. Id. at ECF No. 55. As a result, the Court determined that Defendants were protected by qualified immunity with respect to Steiger's § 1983 claims of unreasonable seizure and malicious prosecution under the Fourth Amendment. Id. The Court further determined that, because a reasonable officer could have believed that probable cause existed for the criminal charges, Steiger could not proceed on his claim of First Amendment retaliation or his claim that his Fourteenth Amendment due process rights had been violated. Id. Steiger's remaining state law gross negligence claim was dismissed without prejudice. Id.

         B.

         Plaintiff Steiger's dispute with Defendant Commissioners allegedly began in September of 2014, after Presque Isle Sheriff Robert Paschke accused Plaintiff of having an affair with Denise Stacer. See Compl. ¶¶ 18-19. Ms. Stacer is a former Chief Juvenile Officer for Presque Isle County who reported to Probate Judge Donald McLennan. On December 19, 2014, Ms. Stacer filed suit against Judge McLennan, Sheriff Paschke, and Undersheriff Joseph Brebaker, alleging that she was terminated from her position and reassigned to a part time position with Michigan District Judge Maria Barton in retaliation for reporting that she had been sexually harassed by a corrections officer assigned to the Presque Isle County Jail. See Stacer v. Presque Isle County, Case No. 14-cv-14814 (E.D. Mich. Dec. 19, 2014). According to Ms. Stacer, the corrections officer was eventually convicted of one charge of criminal sexual conduct in the fourth degree. Id. Ms. Stacer subsequently amended her complaint to add Judge Barton as a defendant after Judge Barton terminated Ms. Stacer's employment. Id. at ECF No. 6. That action was dismissed by stipulation after the parties reached a settlement agreement. Id. at ECF Nos. 41-42.

         After Sheriff Paschke denied accusing Plaintiff Steiger of having an affair with Ms. Stacer, Defendant Schell and Defendant Lang, who made up the Commissioner's Personnel Committee, scheduled a meeting between Plaintiff and Sheriff Paschke for September 30, 2014. See Compl. ¶¶ 19-20. Plaintiff alleges that, although Personnel Committee meetings are usually unattended, the September 30, 2014 meeting was attended by Judge McLennan, a news reporter, and Sheriff Paschke's attorney. Id. at ¶¶ 21-22. A subsequent news report on the meeting represented that Plaintiff Steiger was “adding fuel to the fire.” Id. at ¶ 23.

         In November of 2014, Defendant Commissioners voted against giving Plaintiff Steiger a raise for the 2015 calendar year. Compl. ¶ 24. Then, on or about August 28, 2015 Defendant Commissioners voted in favor of removing Plaintiff from his role as civil counsel for the County. See Compl. ¶¶ 28-30. Defendants' alleged that Plaintiff was being removed because they had “lost confidence” in him. Plaintiff alleges that both of these actions were in retaliation for inmate lawsuits filed against officers of the Sheriff's Department, Plaintiff's allegations that civil rights violations were occurring in the county jail, and Plaintiff's malicious prosecution lawsuit against members of the Sheriff's Department. Id. at ¶¶ 24, 32-33. As a result, Plaintiff initiated the present action.

         In his proposed amended complaint, Plaintiff argues that these actions resulted in his constructive discharge from the position of County Prosecutor. Specifically, Plaintiff alleges that these actions forced him to decide not to run for re-election, and so “on or about March 4, 2016, Plaintiff issued a Press Release which indicated that he will not be seeking re-election as a result of the unlawful retaliation that he has endured while employed as a prosecutor for Defendant Presque Isle County.” See Mot. to Amend ¶¶ 4, 8. He also seeks to add Sheriff Paschke and Judge McLennan as Defendants. Plaintiff alleges that Judge McLennan acted in his individual and official capacities, but outside the scope of his judicial duties, in negatively influencing the September 30, 2014 personnel meeting in retaliation for Steiger's speech that raised concerns about Judge McLennan's treatment of Ms. Stacer. Id. at ¶¶ 7, 30, 41. He alleges that Sheriff Paschke acted within the scope of his employment in negatively influencing the September 30, 2014 personnel meeting in retaliation for Steiger's lawsuits. Id. at ¶¶ 8, 30, 41.

         II.

         Because Plaintiff Steiger's proposed amendments are dependent to a degree upon his existing claims, Defendant's motion to dismiss will be considered first. A pleading fails to state a claim under Rule 12(b)(6) if it does not contain allegations that support recovery under any recognizable legal theory. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678, (2009). In considering a Rule 12(b)(6) motion, the Court construes the pleading in the non-movant's favor and accepts the allegations of facts therein as true. See Lambert, 517 F.3d at 439. The pleader need not have provided “detailed factual allegations” to survive dismissal, but the “obligation to provide the ‘grounds' of his ‘entitle[ment] to relief' requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do.” Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007). In essence, the pleading “must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face” and “the tenet that a court must accept as true all of the allegations contained in a complaint is inapplicable to legal conclusions.” Iqbal, 556 U.S. at 678-79 (quotations and citation omitted).

         A.

         As an initial matter, the parties appear to confuse the distinction between individual and official capacity suits. As explained by the Supreme Court in Kentucky v. Graham, 473 U.S. 159 (1985), individual capacity lawsuits, otherwise known as personal capacity lawsuits, “seek to impose personal liability upon a government official for actions he takes under color of state law.” Id. at 165. To establish such a claim in a § 1983 action “it is enough to show that the official, acting under color of state law, caused the deprivation of a federal right.” Id. at 166. In contrast, a suit against a government official in his or her official capacity represents another way of pleading an action against an entity of which the official is an agent, and must meet the requirements set forth in Monell v. Department of Social Services of City of New York, 436 U.S. 658 (1978) and its progeny. See Id. at n. 55; Graham, 473 U.S. at 165 (“an official-capacity suit is, in all respects other than name, to be treated as a suit against the entity.”). To the extent Plaintiff asserts claims against Presque Isle County ...


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