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Nelson v. Beuchler

United States District Court, D. Utah

April 22, 2019

LISA NELSON; Plaintiff,


          Jill N. Parrish United States District Court Judge

         Before the court is a motion to dismiss brought by defendants Jo Ann Buechler and Lena Edenton. [Docket 37]. The court GRANTS the motion and dismisses plaintiff Lisa Nelson's claims against these defendants.


         Nelson, Buechler, and Edenton worked for Salt Lake County. In 2003, a personal dispute developed between Nelson, on one side, and Buechler and Edenton, on the other. Nelson alleges that between 2003 and 2005, Buechler and Edenton lodged a number of official complaints against her, erroneously claiming that Nelson had engaged in time-card fraud. In June 2005, Nelson received approval to transfer to a different department with better career opportunities. But Buechler, who then worked in the auditor's office held up the transfer paperwork for a period of time. In September 2005, Nelson lodged a complaint against Buechler and Edenton. Buechler's and Edenton's supervisors instructed them to stop their harassing behavior.

         In 2009, the associate director of human resources approached Nelson and showed her a letter detailing time-card fraud allegations made against Nelson by Buechler and Edenton between 2003 and 2009. The letter was addressed to Buechler's supervisor. The associate director told Nelson that the human resources department believed that Buechler had unfairly targeted Nelson. Buechler's supervisor again told her to stop harassing Nelson and restricted Buechler's access to Nelson's time cards. At some indeterminate point in time, Edenton approached Nelson at work and told her that Edenton hated her because “cute, skinny blonde cheerleader types made her life hell growing up.” In 2013, Nelson and Buechler began to work together as team members on a software implementation project. Initially, Nelson and Buechler worked well together. But in April 2015, Edenton transferred into Buechler's department and began to work directly under Buechler. At that time, “the atmosphere and mood of the of the office changed.” Complaints against Nelson were lodged from the payroll department, which consisted of Buechler, Edenton, and two other employees. At work meetings, Buechler also mentioned incidents related to past allegations of time-card abuse. These events in 2015 caused Nelson to experience a great deal of stress and anxiety.

         In December 2015, a consultant mentioned generally the issue of time-card fraud at a work meeting attended by Nelson, Buechler, and Edenton. Buechler and Edenton, who were seated in front of Nelson, turned around and looked back at her when the topic of time-card fraud was mentioned. Nelson had a panic attack and left the meeting. Due to her impaired mental state caused by Buechler and Edenton's harassment, Nelson requested leave from work under the Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993. She later applied for and received long-term disability benefits. But in April 2017, Salt Lake County forced Nelson to retire after her insurer discontinued her disability benefits.

         Nelson sued Buechler, Edenton, Salt Lake County, and her long-term disability insurer. Nelson's claims against Buechler and Edenton (hereinafter, the individual defendants) arise under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Nelson alleges that the individual defendants deprived her of her due process rights guaranteed by the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The individual defendants moved to dismiss the claims against them. They argue that they are entitled to dismissal because they did not deprive her of any procedural due process rights.


         42 U.S.C. § 1983 creates a cause of action for the depravation of a right secured by the Constitution. In her complaint, Nelson asserts that the individual defendants deprived her of procedural due process rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Courts “examine procedural due process questions in two steps: the first asks whether there exists a liberty or property interest which has been interfered with by the State[;] the second examines whether the procedures attendant upon that deprivation were constitutionally sufficient.” Kentucky Dep't of Corr. v. Thompson, 490 U.S. 454, 460 (1989) (citation omitted).

         Nelson articulates three general theories of liability under her § 1983 claim against the individual defendants. First, she alleges that the individual defendants deprived her of her procedural due process rights associated with her public employment. Nelson claims that because the individual defendants caused her mental breakdown, which led to her extended absence from work, the individual defendants are liable for Salt Lake County's termination of her employment without due process. Nelson also asserts that the individual defendants are liable under this theory because they constructively terminated her employment by creating an untenable work environment. Second, Nelson alleges that the individual defendants are liable because Salt Lake County terminated her in a manner that impugned her good name without providing a name-clearing hearing. Third, Nelson argues that the individual defendants deprived her of life and property without procedural due process. She asserts that the harassment perpetrated by the individual defendants deprived her of “life” because she suffered long-term psychological injuries. Nelson also claims that the harassment deprived her of property without due process because she had to pay into early retirement when Salt Lake County forced her out of her employment.

         The individual defendants argue the § 1983 claims against them should be dismissed for two reasons. They argue that the claims should be dismissed under Rule 8(a)(2) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because the complaint provides too little detail regarding what each individual defendant did and when they performed these acts. The individual defendants also argue that because the complaint does not allege that they deprived Nelson of a termination hearing, a name-clearing hearing, or any other procedure guaranteed by the Constitution, they cannot be liable.[2] Because the court finds the individual defendants' second argument to be dispositive, the court addresses only this contention.


         Although Nelson asserts several different theories as to how the individual defendants deprived her of her due process rights, all of these theories rest upon procedural due process claims. Nelson's claim that the individual defendants deprived her of any due process rights attendant to her public employment requires her to prove that the individual defendants denied her a termination hearing. “An essential principle of due process is that a deprivation of life, liberty, or property ‘be preceded by notice and opportunity for hearing appropriate to the nature of the case.'” Cleveland Bd. of Educ. v. Loudermill, 470 U.S. 532, 542 (1985) (citation omitted). “This principle requires ‘some kind of a hearing' prior to the discharge of an employee who has a constitutionally protected property interest in his employment.” Id. (citation omitted); accord Harjo v. Varnum Pub. Sch., 166 F.3d 347 at *2 (10th Cir. 1998) (unpublished table decision) (“Federal constitutional law requires only notice and a fair and impartial adversarial hearing before an employee may be permanently deprived of his property interest in employment.”). Thus, an indispensable element of Nelson's employment claim is the denial of an appropriate procedure for her to challenge Salt Lake County's decision to terminate her.

         Nelson's allegation that the individual defendants created an environment that amounted to constructive discharge does not relieve her of the obligation to prove that the individual defendants deprived her of appropriate procedural safeguards. A constructive discharge in itself does not constitute a violation of due process. Lauck v. Campbell County, 627 F.3d 805, 813 (10th Cir. 2010). In order to make out a constructive discharge claim, Nelson must also ...

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