Eighth Circuit Nixes Female County Worker's Bias Claims

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By Lisa Nagele-Piazza

May 26 — A former chief deputy clerk for a county in Arkansas can’t proceed with her claim that she was fired for her political affiliation in violation of the First Amendment, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit ruled ( DePriest v. Milligan , 2016 BL 167568, 8th Cir., No. 15-1365, 5/26/16 ).

Discharging a public employee solely based on her political affiliation generally violates the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment. This case points to an exception if the employer can show that a particular political affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the job.

It was permissible for a newly elected clerk, Dennis Milligan, to dismiss Ronda DePriest based on her political affiliation because the role had changed to require “personal and political loyalty,” the federal appeals court said May 26 in affirming summary judgment to Milligan.

DePriest also didn’t show that she was dismissed because of her sex in violation of federal anti-discrimination laws. Although she was replaced by a male candidate, she admitted the position had changed, and she didn’t provide any evidence that she was more qualified for the new role, the court said.

Politics-Centered Job Changes

DePriest was a longtime employee of the Saline County, Ark., circuit clerk's office, according to the court. Beginning in 2002, she was appointed to the chief deputy clerk role, which reported to the elected circuit clerk.

DePriest had been reappointed each time former clerk Doug Kidd was reelected. But she was dismissed after Kidd lost the 2010 election to Milligan.

DePriest alleged that Milligan violated her First Amendment rights by firing her for her political affiliation.

But Milligan said he changed the chief deputy position from the administrative role DePriest performed to one that would involve providing advice to Milligan and speaking on his behalf.

He argued that terminating DePriest based on party affiliation was permissible because the new role had duties related to policy making and politics.

Siding with Milligan, the appeals court said the change in job duties made it “appropriate for Milligan to require personal and political loyalty in the Chief Deputy position.”

No Evidence of Sex Bias

The appeals court also affirmed summary judgment to Milligan on DePriest's claim that she was fired based on her sex in violation of Title VII of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and other federal anti-discrimination laws.

DePriest alleged, among other things, that she was more qualified and had more experience than the male candidate who replaced her.

But Milligan described her replacement as “an experienced political operative.”

Milligan claimed he needed “an individual he personally trusted” in the position because of the “politics-centered” changes to the job description.

DePriest acknowledged that the position changed when Milligan was elected, the appeals court said. And she provided no evidence of how she was more qualified for the job in light of the new responsibilities, it said.

Thus, a reasonable jury couldn't find that Milligan's purported reason for dismissing her was a pretext for sex discrimination, the court held.

Judge Michael J. Melloy wrote the opinion, joined by Judges Roger L. Wollman and Steven M. Colloton.

Sutter & Gillham PLLC represented DePriest. Fuqua Campbell PA represented Milligan.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lisa Nagele-Piazza in Washington at lnagele@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Susan J. McGolrick at smcgolrick@bna.com