C&S Clients Prevail on Summary Judgment and Cleared for Trial on Political Retaliation Case

Cain & Skarnulis is pleased to announce that Judge Orlando Garcia of the Western District of Texas in San Antonio recently denied the bulk of a motion for summary judgment filed by Kerr County Clerk Rebecca Bolin and Kerr County in a suit brought by three former Kerr County employees.  Judge Garcia’s ruling will allow the plaintiffs’ claims, alleging Bolin and the County retaliated against them for exercising their First Amendment right to engage in political free speech, to proceed to trial. 

C&S represents the employees, each of whom were fired on New Year’s Day of 2015 in retaliation for supporting the newly elected County Clerk’s opponent during the primary.  The three plaintiffs supported the incumbent County Clerk, Jannett Pieper, in her reelection bid.  Defendant Bolin won the primary and, without a Democratic challenger, was poised to take the office uncontested.  After the primary, Bolin repeatedly told her employees that she did not plan to fire anyone.  In December, she instructed the office to report to work on New Year’s Day for her swearing-in.  Contrary to her prior statements, immediately after taking office, Bolin had bailiffs escort the plaintiffs to her office and, in her first official act, fired the plaintiffs in front of their coworkers.

Sarah Trainum was four months pregnant and needed her job for medical insurance. Julie Garza had been a longstanding, valuable employee who was instrumental in office operations. Judy Rogers quit nursing for the job at the county clerk’s office to avoid the health problems associated with spending long hours on her feet.  She was forced to return to that type of work.  All three were confused, hurt, angry, embarrassed and distraught following the unexpected termination.  They were fired simply for supporting Pieper against Bolin.

In January 2015, the plaintiffs filed suit alleging retaliation for the exercise of their First Amendment right to engage in political free speech.  When Bolin later attacked them in an interview with the Kerrville Daily Times, the plaintiffs added a defamation claim to the lawsuit. 

Bolin’s reign as County Clerk has not been without other controversy.  She has struggled to balance the books of the county clerk’s office, and had to hire an outside auditor to prevent the County from losing thousands of dollars in funding for failure to properly report its finances to the State.

Kerr County and Bolin filed a motion for summary judgment arguing that Bolin terminated the plaintiffs for nonpolitical reasons like “attitude” and “teamwork,” but failed to allege any specific issues with their job performance.  The plaintiffs’ response to the motion for summary judgment was aided by former County Clerk Jannett Pieper’s affidavit, where she stated that the three plaintiffs were all good employees, and that she could think of no reason they were fired other than Bolin’s political motive. 

Magistrate Judge John Primomo recommended that District Judge Garcia deny the motion for summary judgment, but grant the motion as to the defamation claim based on sovereign immunity grounds.  After overruling Kerr County’s objections to the recommendation, Judge Garcia adopted the recommendation of Judge Primomo. 

“In cases like this, where the intent to retaliate is often proven by circumstantial evidence, getting past summary judgment is a huge hurdle,” said Zach Bowman, an attorney for the plaintiffs.  “This is a key victory.  The case is obviously very important to our clients, and we look forward to presenting all of the evidence to a jury,” Bowman said.

Kerr County recently sought an interlocutory appeal of the denial of summary judgment as to Rebecca Bolin’s qualified immunity, delaying the case until the appeal is resolved.  The case had been set for trial on May 23, 2016. 

“We have faith that the Fifth Circuit will quickly deny the qualified immunity appeal.  The law is well settled that an elected official cannot retaliate against employees for supporting her opponent.  We believe this appeal was mainly filed for a procedural delay,” stated Steve Skarnulis, a partner at C&S and lead counsel for the plaintiffs.  “We are confident the appeal will be resolved and the case will be reset for trial.  Our clients will have their day in court.”