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McCaffrey v. Chapman

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

April 9, 2019

MARK F. MCCAFFREY, Plaintiff - Appellant,
v.
MICHAEL L. CHAPMAN, in his personal capacity and in his official capacity as Sheriff of Loudoun County; BOARD OF SUPERVISORS OF LOUDOUN COUNTY, VIRGINIA, in their official capacities; LOUDOUN COUNTY, VIRGINIA, Defendants - Appellees.

          Argued: October 30, 2018

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the Eastern District of Virginia, at Alexandria. Anthony John Trenga, District Judge. (1:17-cv-00937-AJT-IDD)

         ARGUED:

          Robert John Cynkar, MCSWEENEY, CYNKAR & KACHOUROFF PLLC, Woodbridge, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Alexander Francuzenko, COOK CRAIG & FRANCUZENKO, PLLC, Fairfax, Virginia, for Appellees.

         ON BRIEF:

          Patrick M. McSweeney, Powhatan, Virginia, Christopher I. Kachouroff, MCSWEENEY, CYNKAR & KACHOUROFF PLLC, Woodbridge, Virginia, for Appellant.

          Courtney Renee, OFFICE OF LOUDOUN COUNTY ATTORNEY, Leesburg, Virginia, for Appellees Board of Supervisors of Loudoun County, Virginia and Loudoun County, Virginia.

          Before WILKINSON, KING, and QUATTLEBAUM, Circuit Judges.

          Quattlebaum, Circuit Judge.

         This case arises from Sheriff Michael L. Chapman's decision not to re-appoint Mark F. McCaffrey as a deputy sheriff in Loudoun County, Virginia. In response, McCaffrey sued Sheriff Chapman, the Board of Supervisors of Loudoun County and Loudoun County (collectively "Appellees"). McCaffrey alleges that Sheriff Chapman did not re-appoint him because he supported Sheriff Chapman's political opponent during the re-election campaign. McCaffrey claims that Sheriff Chapman's failure to re-appoint him for his political disloyalty violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of political association and speech. The district court found that the Elrod-Branti doctrine, which permits public officials to fire certain employees for their support of a political opponent, precludes McCaffrey's First Amendment claims. Therefore, the district court dismissed McCaffrey's complaint. For the reasons that follow, we affirm.

         I.

         A.

         A sheriff has the power, under Virginia law, to appoint deputy sheriffs.[1]Appointments of deputy sheriffs technically expire at the end of a sheriff's four-year term, even if the sheriff is re-elected. In practice, deputy sheriffs are routinely re-appointed after each election.

         McCaffrey started working in the Loudoun County Sheriff's Office ("LCSO") in 2005.[2] In 2008, he began working as a major crimes detective serving as a lead detective in complex, high-profile cases. McCaffrey supported Sheriff Chapman when he first ran for sheriff in 2011. However, when Sheriff Chapman ran for re-election in 2015, McCaffrey supported his opponent.

         McCaffrey placed a sign in his yard in support of Sheriff Chapman's opponent and served as a delegate to the Republican convention in which the Republican candidate for sheriff was chosen. McCaffrey also participated as an outside advisor in the screening of local candidates for potential endorsement by the Board of Directors of the local chapter of the Virginia Police Benevolent Association. McCaffrey did not speak publicly about the election. He did not wear campaign apparel or accessories. He did not use his LCSO position in support of Sheriff Chapman's opponent.

         Sheriff Chapman viewed McCaffrey's support of his opponent as disloyal. McCaffrey's colleagues warned McCaffrey that there would be consequences for his disloyalty.

         After Sheriff Chapman won re-election, McCaffrey received a letter informing him that his appointment as a deputy sheriff would not be renewed. In addition to not reappointing McCaffrey, Sheriff Chapman lowered McCaffrey's score on his final performance evaluation to prevent McCaffrey from receiving a bonus. Sheriff Chapman also interfered with McCaffrey's opportunity to be considered for a law enforcement position sponsored by the LCSO and a nearby municipal police department.

         B.

         In response to Sheriff Chapman's actions, McCaffrey filed a complaint against Appellees in Virginia state court. McCaffrey alleged that Sheriff Chapman's decision not to re-appoint him violated his First Amendment rights to freedom of political association and speech under both the United States and the Virginia Constitution. Appellees removed the case to federal court based on federal question jurisdiction.

         Appellees then moved to dismiss McCaffrey's complaint pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure. Appellees asserted that Sheriff Chapman's decision not to re-appoint McCaffrey fell squarely within an exception to the First Amendment known as the Elrod-Branti exception. As described more fully below, the Elrod-Branti exception, when applicable, allows public officials to terminate public employees for supporting a political opponent.

         After oral argument, the district court found that the Elrod-Branti exception applied and dismissed McCaffrey's complaint.[3] McCaffrey appealed the order of the dismissal. We have jurisdiction of this appeal pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 1291.

         II.

         A.

         This Court reviews a district court's grant of a motion to dismiss de novo. Nemet Chevrolet, Ltd. v. Consumeraffairs.com, Inc., 591 F.3d 250, 253 (4th Cir. 2009). In exercising this de novo review, we follow the well-settled standard for evaluating a motion to dismiss.

         A plaintiff's complaint must set forth "a short and plain statement . . . showing that the pleader is entitled to relief." Fed.R.Civ.P. 8(a)(2). Rule 8 "does not require 'detailed factual allegations.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). But a "complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to 'state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Id. at 677. "A claim has facial plausibility when the plaintiff pleads factual content that allows the court to draw the reasonable inference that the defendant is liable for the misconduct alleged." Id. at 678.

         In considering a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), a court "accepts all well-pled facts as true and construes these facts in the light most favorable to the plaintiff. . . ." Nemet, 591 F.3d at 255. However, a court should grant a Rule 12(b)(6) motion if, "after accepting all well-pleaded allegations in the plaintiff's complaint as true and drawing all reasonable factual inferences from those facts in the plaintiff's favor, it appears certain that the plaintiff cannot prove any set of facts in support of his claim entitling him to relief." Edwards v. City of Goldsboro, 178 F.3d 231, 244 (4th Cir. 1999).

         B.

         On appeal, McCaffrey alleges that the district court erred by dismissing his First Amendment claims. McCaffrey's appeal implicates two doctrines that provide exceptions to the First Amendment's protections.

         The first doctrine is known as the Elrod-Branti exception. Generally, the First Amendment's right to freedom of political association prohibits government officials from terminating public employees solely for supporting political opponents. However, under the Elrod-Branti exception, certain public employees can be be terminated for political association in order to give effect to the democratic process. See Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980); Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976).

         The second doctrine is known as the Pickering-Connick doctrine. The First Amendment's right to freedom of speech generally prohibits dismissals of employees in retaliation for the exercise of protected speech. However, under the Pickering-Connick doctrine, the First Amendment does not protect public employees from termination when their free speech interests are outweighed by the government's interest in providing efficient and effective services to the public. See Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138 (1983); Pickering v. Board of Education, 391 U.S. 563 (1968).

         As noted above, the district court dismissed McCaffrey's complaint finding that Chapman's decision to not re-appoint McCaffrey did not violate the First Amendment because it fell within the Elrod-Branti exception. The district court did not address the Pickering-Connick doctrine. We address these doctrines in turn.

         C.

         Turning to the Elrod-Branti exception, we first review the case law that establishes and interprets the exception. Then, we consider whether Sheriff Chapman's dismissal of McCaffrey for supporting his political rival fell within the exception. Last, we address McCaffrey's specific challenges to the district court's findings regarding the exception.

         1.

         The Elrod-Branti exception to the First Amendment's protection against political affiliation dismissals was created from two Supreme Court cases. In Elrod, a plurality of the Supreme Court established the general rule that dismissing public employees for political affiliation violates their First and Fourteenth Amendment rights by limiting their political belief and association. However, the Supreme Court simultaneously carved out a narrow exception to this general rule prohibiting patronage dismissals. A government official does not violate a public employee's First Amendment rights when the employee is dismissed for political association if the employee holds a policymaking position. Elrod, 427 U.S. at 367. In creating this exception, the Supreme Court recognized the dangers of the government's interests being "undercut by tactics obstructing the implementation of policies of the new administration, policies presumably sanctioned by the electorate." Id.

         In Branti, the Supreme Court clarified the exception announced in Elrod. The Court explained that "the ultimate inquiry is not whether the label 'policymaker' or 'confidential' fits a particular position; rather, the question is whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved." Branti, 445 U.S. at 518. The Court reasoned that "if an employee's private political beliefs would interfere with the discharge of his public duties, his First Amendment rights may be required to yield to the State's vital interest in maintaining governmental effectiveness and efficiency." Id. at 517.

         Interpreting Elrod and Branti, this Court established a two-step inquiry for determining when party affiliation is an appropriate job requirement. Stott v. Haworth, 916 F.2d 134 (4th Cir. 1990). First, a court must examine whether the position at issue relates to partisan political interests. Id. at 141. If the "first inquiry is satisfied, the next step is to examine the particular responsibilities of the position to determine whether it resembles . . . [an] office holder whose function is such that party affiliation is an equally appropriate requirement." Id. at 142 (citing Jimenez Fuentes v. Torres Gaztambide, 807 F.2d 236, 241-42 (1st Cir. 1986)).

         On several occasions, this Court has applied the Elrod-Branti exception in the context of a sheriff dismissing a deputy for supporting the sheriff's opponent. Most notably, in Jenkins v. Medford, 119 F.3d 1156, 1164 (4th Cir. 1997), this Court, sitting en banc, held that under the Elrod-Branti exception a North Carolina sheriff could terminate his deputy sheriffs for political affiliation. In determining that political affiliation was an appropriate job requirement, this Court first recognized that the electorate generally chooses a candidate based on ...


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