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McBride v. McLean County

United States District Court, C.D. Illinois, Peoria Division

June 24, 2019

LAURA MCBRIDE, Plaintiff,
v.
MCLEAN COUNTY, CARLA BARNES, McLean County Public Defender, sued in both individual and official capacities, BILL WASSON, County Administrator of McLean County sued in both individual and official capacities, Defendants.

          ORDER AND OPINION

          Michael M. Mihm United States District Judge

         This matter is now before the Court on a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint (ECF No. 17) filed by Defendants McLean County, McLean County Public Defender Carla Barnes (“Barnes”), and McLean County Administrator Bill Wasson (“Wasson”) (referred to collectively as “Defendants”). For the reasons stated below, Defendants' Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint is GRANTED IN PART and DENIED IN PART.

         BACKGROUND

         Plaintiff, Laura McBride (“Plaintiff”), is a licensed private investigator who began her employment with the McLean County Public Defender's Office in January 1997 and was eventually promoted to Criminal Defense Investigator, a position which she held from July 2005 to December 2017. (ECF No. 3 at 9). Plaintiff initially filed a Pro Se Complaint in this Court on November 21, 2018 (ECF No. 1) claiming violations of the First Amendment as well as a state law claim for the Illinois Whistleblowers Act against the Defendants. An Amended Complaint (ECF No. 3) was filed on February 15, 2019. The Amended Complaint named the same Defendants as the Pro Se Complaint and claimed: (1) a First Amendment violation under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Barnes and Wasson; (2) a First Amendment conspiracy under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against Barnes and Wasson; (3) a section 1983 Monell claim for violation of Plaintiff's First Amendment rights against all Defendants; and (4) a violation of the Illinois Whistleblower Act, 730 ILCS 174/20.1, against all Defendants. On May 3, 2019, Defendants filed a Motion to Dismiss Plaintiff's Amended Complaint with prejudice under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) (ECF No. 17). This Opinion follows.

         This action stems from the December 31, 2017 termination of Plaintiff's employment as a Criminal Defense Investigator in the Public Defender's Office through the McLean County Board's adoption of a new budget for the Fiscal Year 2018. Plaintiff contends that Barnes and Wasson made the decision to terminate Plaintiff by using the pretext of budgetary concerns after she spoke out on matters regarding the misuse of county funds, of how former Public Defender Kim Campbell (“Campbell”) may have improperly aided the prosecution in the murder trial of People v. David Boswell, Jr.;2010 CF 1117, and of how the current Public Defender, Defendant Barnes, failed to report Campbell's actions from that trial.

         The pleaded facts surrounding Plaintiff's claims began in August 2011 when Plaintiff testified in a professional capacity in the Boswell trial. (ECF No. 3 at 12). Defendant Barnes was lead counsel for the defendant, and former Public Defender Campbell was her supervisor. (ECF No. 3 at 13, 15). After closing arguments, Campbell allegedly told Plaintiff that she had helped the Assistant State Attorney handling the prosecution write her closing argument. (ECF No. 3 at 14). The defendant was ultimately found guilty. (ECF No. 3 at 15). Plaintiff reported Campbell's statement to Defendant Barnes, who noted that she had suspected that Campbell was assisting the prosecutors, but nonetheless declined to report Campbell. (ECF No. 3 at 15).

         In April 2014, Plaintiff met with the Illinois Attorney General's Office because she became concerned that Campbell was improperly using public funds and resources (ECF No. 3 at 21). Plaintiff was told to report the conduct to Chief Judge Elizabeth Robb (ECF No. 3 at 21). On July 22, 2014, Plaintiff met with Chief Judge Robb and revealed her insight of Campbell's involvement with the Boswell trial and Defendant Barnes' knowledge of it. (ECF No. 3 at 24). Soon thereafter, Plaintiff also reported Campbell's conduct in the Boswell case, along with Defendant Barnes' knowledge of it, to the Bloomington Police Department and the Illinois State Police. (ECF No. 3 at 25). On or about September 30, 2014, Defendant Wasson met with Plaintiff to discuss what she knew of Campbell's conduct in both her “questionable use of public funds” and her “involvement in the Boswell case.” (ECF No. 3 at 26). In that same month, Plaintiff signed an affidavit for the defense attorney handling Boswell's post-conviction proceedings regarding the murder trial and included in that affidavit that she reported the incident to Defendant Barnes. (ECF No. 3 at 28). On or about March 2016, The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper that serves the Bloomington-Normal, Illinois area, ran a story about the alleged misconduct in the Boswell trial and detailed the affidavit Plaintiff signed. (ECF No. 3 at 34). Defendant Barnes spoke to Plaintiff after the story was published and allegedly expressed concern that it might negatively impact her political future. (ECF No. 3 at 34). After that conversation, Plaintiff contends she began experiencing adverse employment actions including: 1) Defendant Barnes stopped speaking to Plaintiff both in and out of the office; 2) Defendant Barnes stopped inviting Plaintiff to attend meetings and seminars that she previously would have attended as part of her employment duties; 3) Defendant Barnes changed Plaintiff's job duties and informed her she would no longer conduct investigations in the field or serve subpoenas; 4) Defendant Barnes began taking away Plaintiff's cases and reassigning them, and 5) after taking away cases from Plaintiff, Defendant Barnes then informed other employees in the office that Plaintiff's numbers were low. (ECF No. 3 at 35). Plaintiff began to worry that her job was in jeopardy. (ECF No. 3 at 36). Plaintiff also signed a second affidavit dated August 31, 2017 regarding the murder trial, and shortly thereafter, Defendant Barnes allegedly told Plaintiff that she was unhappy Plaintiff was spending so much time assisting Boswell's new criminal defense lawyer. (ECF No. 3 at 30, 31).

         In September 2017, Defendant Wasson began to express concerns over the budget for the Fiscal Year 2018 due to the recent passing of the budget by the Illinois General Assembly and the State of Illinois. (ECF No. 17 at 2-3; 17-1 at 1-2). As a result, Defendant Wasson and the McLean County Board members explored methods to scale down expenses, including reductions in the workforce. (ECF No. 17-1 at 1-6). Defendant Wasson was directed by the Board to work with department heads across the county to evaluate staffing levels. (ECF No. 17 at 2; 17-1 at 1-2). While evaluating full-time staffing levels at the Public Defender's Office, Defendant Barnes recommended to Defendant Wasson that Plaintiff's position be included in the workforce reduction. (ECF No. 17 at 2). On November 21, 2017, the Board adopted the budget for the Fiscal Year 2018, which eliminated several positions, including Plaintiff's position. (ECF No. 3 at 40). Plaintiff claims that thereafter another individual with less experience was offered a contract investigator position. (ECF No. 3 at 42).

         STANDARD OF REVIEW

         Dismissal under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 12(b)(6) is proper if a complaint fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted. Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). To survive a motion to dismiss, a complaint must contain sufficient factual matter, which when accepted as true, states a claim for relief that is plausible on its face. Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009). Plausibility means alleging factual content that allows a court to reasonably infer that the defendant is liable for the alleged misconduct. Bell Atlantic Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 547 (2007). A plaintiff's claim must “give enough details about the subject matter of the case to present a story that holds together” to be plausible. Swanson v. Citibank, N.A., 614 F.3d 400, 404 (7th Cir. 2010). A court must draw all inferences in favor of the non-moving party. Bontkowski v. First Nat'l Bank of Cicero, 998 F.2d 459, 461 (7th Cir. 1993).

         When evaluating a motion to dismiss, courts must accept as true all factual allegations in the complaint. Ashcroft, 556 U.S. at 678. However, the court need not accept as true the complaint's legal conclusions; “[t]hreadbare recitals of the elements of a cause of action, supported by mere conclusory statements, do not suffice.” Id. (citing Bell Atlantic Corp., 550 U.S. at 555). Conclusory allegations are “not entitled to be assumed true.” Id.

         Moreover, in ruling on a motion to dismiss pursuant to Rule 12(b)(6), a court may not consider extrinsic evidence. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6). If a court considers matters outside of the pleadings, “the motion must be treated as one for summary judgment.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 12 (12)(d). However, a court may “take judicial notice of matters of public record, ” United States v. Wood, 925 F.2d 1580, 1582 (7th Cir. 1991), and it may do so without converting a motion to dismiss into one for summary judgment. Ennenga v. Starns, 677 F.3d 766, 774 (7th Cir. 2012); Gen. Elec. Capital Corp. v. Lease Resolution Corp., 128 F.3d 1074, 1080 (7th Cir. 1997); Henson v. CSC Credit Servs. 29 F.3d 280, 284 (7th Cir. 1994). This exception has allowed courts to avoid unnecessary proceedings when an undisputed fact in the public record establishes that the plaintiff cannot satisfy the 12(b)(6) standard. Gen. Elec. Capital Corp. 128 F.3d at 1081. Here, Defendants have introduced minutes and agendas from the McLean County Board meetings, ordinances from the McLean County Code, and the McClean County budget worksheets for Fiscal Year 2018, as an Exhibit (ECF No. 17-1) to their Motion to Dismiss. Given these are documents that are part of public record, the Court will take judicial notice and consider them without converting the present motion to a motion for summary judgment.

         ANALYSIS

         I. ...


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