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Billioni v. York County

United States District Court, D. South Carolina, Rock Hill Division

June 20, 2017

Michael Billioni, Plaintiff,
v.
York County and Sheriff Bruce Bryant, individually and in his official capacity as York County Sheriff, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

         Plaintiff Michael Billioni (“Plaintiff” or “Billioni”) filed this action against Defendants York County and Sheriff Bruce Bryant, individually and in his official capacity as York County Sheriff (“Sheriff Bryant”), (together “Defendants”) seeking damages and injunctive relief stemming from the termination of his employment. (ECF No. 120.)

         This matter is before the court on Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment (ECF No. 145) pursuant to Rule 56 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Plaintiff opposes Defendants' Motion in its entirety. (ECF No. 155.) For the reasons set forth below, the court GRANTS IN PART AND DENIES IN PART Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment.

         I. RELEVANT BACKGROUND TO PENDING MOTION

         The facts as viewed in the light most favorable to Plaintiff are discussed as follows.

         In November 2010, Plaintiff was hired as an officer at the York County Detention Center (the “Detention Center”) by the York County Sheriff's Office (“YCSO”). (ECF No. 145-6 at 20:9-11, 22:12-14 & 33:17-19.) “Several years later, Billioni was promoted to corporal and assigned to the position of Master Control Specialist.” (ECF Nos. 145-2 at 2 & 155 at 2 (referencing ECF No. 145-6 at 34:8-17.) “Master Control functions as the eyes and ears of the Detention Center and controls access to various areas within it.” (ECF Nos. 145-2 at 2 & 155 at 2 (referencing ECF No. 145-6 at 32:6-20.) “In that position, Billioni was in a central control area and had access to the video system in the Detention Center.” (ECF Nos. 145-2 at 2 & 155 at 2 (referencing ECF No. 145-6 at 32:6-20.) Therefore, Plaintiff had “access to the cameras that record activities in the jail.” (ECF No. 155 at 3 (referencing ECF No. 145-6 at 227).)

         Early on the morning of Sunday, October 20, 2013, an inmate named Joshua Grose (“Grose”) died while being held in the Detention Center. Later that afternoon, the YCSO's public information officer, Trent Faris, held a press conference, which Plaintiff watched while off duty. (ECF No. 145-6 at 44:11-25.) Faris provided the following statement regarding the Grose incident:

Good afternoon. My name is Trent Faris, Public Information Officer for the York County Sheriff's Office. To my right is Deputy Kim Morehouse, she's the assistant public information officer and our crime prevention officer. Today I'm going to give you some more information about the events that took place Friday night and throughout the weekend by Joshua Matthew Grose in a case involving him. On Friday night shortly after 11 p.m., Joshua Matthew Grose was booked into the York County Detention Center for charges of murder, attempted murder, and grand larceny. From that time he was booked into the Detention Center, Mr. Grose was very uncooperative with Detention Center officers and staff. Early this morning, Mr. Grose attempted to drown[] himself in his cell toilet and he also hit his head on his cell wall several times. Detention - - detention officers restrained Mr. Grose by putting him in a re[s]training chair for his safety, other inmates' safety and detention officer safety. Once in the chair, Mr. Grose was still very combative and kept hitting his head on the back of the chair, restraint chair. Officers then attempted to place a helmet on Mr. Grose's head to prevent him from further injury. At that time, officers noticed a laceration on the back of Mr. Grose's head. EMS was called to assess his injuries. This - - this was at approximately between 1:20 a.m. and 1:46 a.m. this morning. Mr. Grose was so combative and aggressive, a full medical exam could not be performed at the time. According to the EMS crew, the lacerations did not require stitches, so the decision was made not to transport him to the hospital. At 2:20 a.m., during normal rounds, detention officers found Mr. Grose unresponsive. CPR was immediately performed and EMS was called back to the Detention Center at 2:20 a.m. CPR was performed at 2:20 - - 2:20 a.m. to 2:29 a.m. And according to EMS, it appears that Mr. Grose was in cardiac arrest when they arrived the second time. He was then transported to Piedmont Medical Center where CPR was performed from here until there. Joshua Matthew Grose was pronounced dead shortly thereafter this morning at the emergency room at 3:05 a.m. An autopsy will be performed on Mr. Grose tomorrow, Monday, October 21st. The State Law Enforcement Division or SLED is investigating. Currently, there are 369 inmates housed in the York County Detention Center and we had 20 officers on duty last night. As far as the investigation from Friday night's incident, I have incident reports and warrants for you. I'll give those to you later, but just a quick synopsis of what took place Friday night. We believe that in an attempt to steal Mrs. Thomas' vehicle, Grose struck her with the vehicle as he was leaving. Grose then goes to Mrs. Grose, the second victim's house, and physically assaults her and hits her also with the car. In the process, he also assaulted a third victim. We're still trying to get the motive of why this took place on Friday night and we don't want to speculate on the motive until all the facts are gathered in the case. We don't have much else to say, but I'll take a few questions at this time.

(ECF No. 145-10 at 56:21-59:21.) In response to a question regarding whether any officers would be placed on administrative leave, Faris answered “[a]ll our officers, detention officers, did exactly what they were supposed to do last night” regarding the incident involving Grose. (ECF No. 145-10 at 61:9-14.)

         Plaintiff “was not on duty when Grose died, he returned to work his shift at 5:30 pm the next day, Monday, October 21, 2013.” (ECF No. 155 at 3 (referencing ECF No. 145-6 at 41:6- 18).) Because he did not believe Faris' report of propriety by the Detention Center's officers (ECF No. 145-6 at 49:15-25), Plaintiff watched the recording of the Grose incident several times and concluded that he “saw a struggle with an inmate that turned into [correctional officer] James Moore punching this inmate 12 times.” (Id. at 47:14-48:4.) Additionally, Plaintiff was concerned with the method used by correctional officers to secure a protective helmet on Grose's head and the taser setting that was used during the incident and that EMS came in and did not lay a hand on Grose. (Id. at 50:20-55:10.) Plaintiff expressed his concerns to his partner, Paul Aube. (Id. at 56:13-25.)

         At home after work on the morning of October 22, 2013 (id. at 70:1-17), Plaintiff told his wife what he saw on the video of Grose, i.e., that he was “struck 12 times[] in the course of the incident that led to his death” and “that other officers[1] were there and did nothing.” (Id. at 65:2- 22.) Plaintiff's wife worked as a research analyst[2] for WCNC, the NBC affiliate in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Id. at 70:18-20.) After the conversation with Plaintiff, Plaintiff's wife emailed details about the Grose incident to unspecified individuals at WCNC. (Id. at 76:5-77:2.)

         After Plaintiff's wife conveyed information regarding Grose to WCNC, Stuart Watson, a reporter from the television station, sent a request pursuant to the Freedom of Information Act (“FOIA”) to the YCSO. (ECF No. 145-10 at 70:1-72:11.) In addition, Watson contacted Kristie Jordan, Sheriff Bryant's general counsel, making inquiries that conveyed detailed information about the Grose incident and suggested criminal conduct by the Detention Center's officers. (ECF No. 145-8 at 106:2-108:1; see also ECF No. 145-7 at 74:19-75:5.) After hearing about Watson's requests for information, Sheriff Bryant became concerned about allegations of criminal conduct by the Detention Center's officers that he did not have knowledge of at the time. (Id.; see also ECF Nos. 145-8 at 113:11-20 & 145-9 at 6:23-10:11.) At a subsequent meeting in the afternoon of October 22, 2013, Sheriff Bryant “ordered his staff to look into the allegations and determine if there was a witness who saw something that had not been reported.” (ECF No. 145-2 at 3 (referencing, e.g., ECF No. 145-7 at 77:1-78:25).)

         Because they knew Plaintiff's wife worked for WCNC, Chief Administrator James Arwood and Assistant Administrator Richard Martin decided to start the internal administrative investigation ordered by Sheriff Bryant by first interviewing Plaintiff. (ECF Nos. 145-6 at 95:4- 20 & 145-7 at 119:2-23.) Before beginning the interview, Martin and/or Arwood advised Plaintiff that if he “refuse[d] in this administrative investigation to truthfully answer any questions related to your performance of your duties or to the fitness for your duties, you will be subject to departmental charges, which could result in your dismissal from the York County Sheriff's Office.” (Id. at 97:5-12; see also ECF No. 145-6 at 244.) During the interview, Plaintiff admitted to watching the video of the Grose incident, but denied that he discussed the video with anyone outside of the YCSO. (ECF No. 145-6 at 99:12-101:4.) Plaintiff states that he did not tell the truth about what he told his wife because he was “scared of losing my job” and “afraid that I'd end up getting folded into a criminal investigation.”[3] (Id. at 106:3-9.)

         At approximately 6:43 a.m. on the morning of October 23, 2013, Plaintiff sent Martin and Arwood an e-mail requesting that they contact him because he needed to tell them something. (Id. at 245.) At approximately 8 a.m., Plaintiff told Arwood that Plaintiff knew “that WCNC had the story about what was going on, what actually happened to Joshua Grose and that I could get them to stop it.” (Id. at 116:11-17 & 117:16-24.) In response to Plaintiff, Arwood stated that he was not interested in stopping any story. (Id. at 118:3-9.) Later on at 1:29 p.m. on October 23, 2013, Plaintiff sent Martin and Arwood an e-mail stating that Plaintiff “need[ed] to get something off my conscience . . . .” (Id. at 251.) Thereafter, at 3:13 p.m., Plaintiff sent Martin and Arwood the following e-mail:

I wanted to talk to you over the phone about this situation but I realize that you both may be busy so I will not take up much of your time. I am responsible solely for the mess this has created and I accept full responsibility for my actions. I did tell my wife things that were in that video and in turn she, without my knowledge passed that information on. I only learned of this when I told my wife of my investigation, which is also in clear violation of the policy. I didn't expect anything to go any further than her, and she has stated she went without my knowledge and without my wishes with that information. After discussions with my wife, she has requested that they discontinue looking into this situation and they have agreed to drop everything on their end. Other than me, my wife, and the NBC Charlotte news director nobody else knows of this and it will stop. I realize that I have not upheld the oath I swore to and all I can say to that is I am sorry. There is nothing I can do to make this right other than get this off my chest, and absolve the other people you wish to question that had nothing to do with this. I do realize I may be burning a bridge that had already been on fire with this situation, and I know now that I did the wrong thing. I take full responsibility for my actions and I accept any punishment that is due to me. I have no excuse for my lapse in judgment and believe that I have started to learn my lesson, and I also know I need to do a little soul searching and grow up. If you need me to report in, I am able to be there about or after 5:30 this evening, as I have my child at this time and my wife returns home at 5. Again I am responsible and I want those who weren't directly involved into my actions to be not held to account for my stupidity.

(Id. at 253.) Arwood responded telling Plaintiff that they would discuss the issue at a later date. (Id. at 123:8-12.)

         At approximately 2 p.m. on October 25, 2013, Plaintiff met for 2 hours with an agent of the South Carolina Law Enforcement Division (“SLED”). (Id. at 123:13-124:16.) Plaintiff gave the SLED agent a written statement documenting events starting when Plaintiff viewed the video of Grose and ending with his e-mail at 3:13 p.m. on October 23, 2013. (Id. at 254-55.) Although he told the SLED agent he feared losing his job and thought he could be charged with a crime, Plaintiff did not include that information in his written statement. (Id. at 125:23-126:20.) Plaintiff then met with Arwood and Martin, who gave Plaintiff the choice to either resign or be fired. (Id. at 130:1-3.) Plaintiff chose to be fired. (Id. at 130:3.) Immediately thereafter, Plaintiff received a Notice of Termination stating that his termination was “based upon violations of Sheriff[']s Office/York County Rules, Regulations and Policy: 300:16 Code of Ethics, VIII.

         Employee Rules of Conduct, 16.[4] and VII.[5] Confidential Information.” (ECF No. 145-6 at 260.) Sheriff Bryant then issued a Personnel Order to select individuals[6] at the Detention Center about Plaintiff no longer being employed there. (Id. at 261.) In addition, on or about October 13, 2013, Martin submitted a Personnel Change in Status Report Notification of Administrative/Routine Separation to the South Carolina Criminal Justice Academy (“SCCJA”) to inform it that Plaintiff was terminated “for violation of AGENCY policy NOT involving misconduct as defined in S.C. Reg. 38-004 (i.e., substandard performance, excessive absenteeism, sleeping on duty, etc.).” (Id. at 262.) Plaintiff did not file a grievance regarding his termination because he was not aware he could grieve it. (Id. at 149:25-151:10.)

         On November 12, 2013, the YCSO held a second press conference where it showed assembled media members the camera footage from the Grose incident. (ECF No. 145-10 at 83:1-13.) At the November 12, 2013 press conference, the following exchange allegedly occurred:

Sheriff Bryant was asked a question by Stuart Watson - - Well, let me back that up a little bit. Sheriff Bryant was talking about how the actions of the officers on that night were - - again, I'm going to paraphrase - - were heroic, and they did everything that they could. And he said that he had not found any fault on - - by any officer concerning this death or the other death, which I'm assuming to be Jeffrey Waddell. Stuart Watson then asked the question, then why did you fire Mike Billioni? Sheriff Bryant looked down at the floor, and he looked back up and very, very agitated said, that man was terminated, and I believe you know the answer. And he started to yell at Stuart and point his finger at him saying, out of all the people in this room, you know the answer to that question, and then refused to let Stuart Watson ask any further questions for the duration of the press conference.

(ECF No. 145-6 at 134:12-135:5.)

         On July 31, 2014, Plaintiff filed a Complaint in this court against Sheriff Bruce Bryant, the Detention Center, York County, and the YCSO alleging the following causes of action: (1) a claim pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983 for violation of the First Amendment right to free speech; (2) a claim for violation of the South Carolina Whistleblower Statute (“Whistleblower Act”), SC Code Ann §§ 8-27-10 to -60 (1976); (3) a claim for retaliation in violation of public policy; (4) a claim pursuant to section 1983 for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process; (5) a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public policy; and (6) a claim for failure to pay overtime wages in violation of the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 (“FLSA”), 29 U.S.C. §§ 201-219. (ECF No. 1 at 14-21.) After the court granted his Motion to Amend the Complaint on March 16, 2015 (ECF No. 43), Plaintiff filed an Amended Complaint against only Sheriff Bryant alleging the following causes of action: (1) a claim pursuant to section 1983 for violation of the First Amendment right to free speech; (2) a claim for violation of the Whistleblower Act; (3) a claim for retaliation and wrongful violation of public policy; (4) a claim pursuant to section 1983 for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process; (5) a claim for failure to pay overtime wages in violation of the FLSA; and (6) a claim for violation of the South Carolina Payment of Wages Act (“SCPWA”), SC Code Ann. §§ 41-10-40 to -50 (1986). (ECF No. 44 at 15-23.)

         On April 6, 2015, Sheriff Bryant filed a Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. (ECF No. 48.) On August 18, 2015, the court granted Sheriff Bryant's Motion for Partial Judgment and barred Plaintiff's First Amendment right to free speech and Fourteenth Amendment right to due process claims against Sheriff Bryant in his official capacity and Plaintiff's remaining claims alleging violation of the Whistleblower Act, the FLSA, the SCPWA, and public policy. (ECF No. 59 at 22.) As a result of the court's August 18, 2015 Order, the only surviving claims were Plaintiff's section “1983 claims for prospective injunctive relief against Defendant [Bryant] in his official capacity and Plaintiff's § 1983 claims against Defendant in his individual capacity.” (Id.)

         Plaintiff filed a Second Motion to Amend on March 29, 2016. (ECF No. 91.) After the court granted his Second Motion to Amend on May 13, 2016 (ECF No. 117), Plaintiff filed a Second Amended Complaint against York County and Sheriff Bryant alleging the following causes of action: (1) a claim pursuant to section 1983 against Sheriff Bryant for violation of the First Amendment right to free speech; (2) a claim pursuant to section 1983 against York County for violation of the First Amendment right to free speech; and (3) a claim pursuant to section 1983 against Defendants for violation of the Fourteenth Amendment right to due process. (ECF No. 120 at 15-19.) Defendants answered the Second Amended Complaint on June 8, 2016, denying its allegations. (ECF Nos. 128 & 129.) On January 10, 2017, Defendants filed their Motion for Summary Judgment. (ECF No. 145.) Plaintiff filed a Response in Opposition to Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on February 9, 2017, to which Defendants filed their Reply to Plaintiff's Opposition to Motion for Summary Judgment on March 2, 2017. (ECF Nos. 155 & 161.)

         The court heard argument from the parties on the instant Motion at a hearing on April 19, 2017. (ECF No. 167.)

         II. JURISDICTION

         This court has jurisdiction over this matter pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1331 based on Plaintiff's claims against Defendants under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, which permits an injured party to bring a civil action against a person who, acting under color of state law, ordinance, regulation, or custom, causes the injured party to be deprived of “any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” Id.

         III. LEGAL STANDARD

         A. Summary Judgment under Rule 56

         Summary judgment should be granted “if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). A fact is “material” if proof of its existence or non-existence would affect the disposition of the case under the applicable law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248-49 (1986). A genuine question of material fact exists where, after reviewing the record as a whole, the court finds that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party. Newport News Holdings Corp. v. Virtual City Vision, 650 F.3d 423, 434 (4th Cir. 2011).

         In ruling on a motion for summary judgment, a court must view the evidence in the light most favorable to the non-moving party. Perini Corp. v. Perini Constr., Inc., 915 F.2d 121, 123-24 (4th Cir. 1990). The non-moving party may not oppose a motion for summary judgment with mere allegations or denial of the movant's pleading, but instead must “set forth specific facts” demonstrating a genuine issue for trial. Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(e); see Celotex Corp. v. Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 324 (1986); Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 252 (1986); Shealy v. Winston, 929 F.2d 1009, 1012 (4th Cir. 1991). All that is required is that “sufficient evidence supporting the claimed factual dispute be shown to require a jury or judge to resolve the parties' differing versions of the truth at trial.” ...


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