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Morehead v. Barnett

United States District Court, E.D. Kentucky, Central Division, Lexington

June 19, 2014

LANA MOREHEAD, Plaintiff,
v.
RHONDA A. BARNETT, in her Official Capacity as County Clerk, Powell County, Kentucky, Defendant.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

DANNY C. REEVES, District Judge.

Defendant Rhonda A. Barnett, sued in her official capacity as the county clerk of Powell County, Kentucky, has filed a motion for partial judgment on the pleadings regarding Counts Two, Three, and Four of Plaintiff Lana Morehead's Complaint. [Record No. 10] Barnett argues that these claims should be dismissed pursuant to Rule 12(c) of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure because they are barred by the doctrine of sovereign immunity. For the reasons outlined below, the Court agrees; therefore, the defendant's motion will be granted.

I.

Plaintiff Morehead is a former assistant county clerk who previously worked under Defendant Barnett, the county clerk of Powell County, Kentucky. While Morehead was employed as an assistant county clerk, a dispute arose with Barnett regarding Morehead's compensation. [Record No. 1, pp. 5-6] Through an open records request under Kentucky law, Morehead sought and received information regarding the salaries of all employees in the county clerk's office. [ Id., ¶14] Thereafter, Morehead's employment ended.[1] [Record No. 1, ¶17]

Morehead makes a number of allegations regarding Barnett's actions as a county clerk, including that Barnett has substance-abuse problems, fabricated a budgetary crisis, and that Barnett was often absent from the office without explanation. [ See Record No. 1.] She alleges the following causes of action against Barnett in her official capacity: (i) a private cause of action under the federal Consolidated Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1986 ("COBRA") (Count One); (ii) a wrongful discharge claim related to Barnett's alleged alcohol abuse (Count Two); (iii) a wrongful discharge in violation of public policy claim (Count Three); (iv) fraud (Count Four); and (v) wage and hour claim under Kentucky law (Count Five). [Record No. 1] Morehead requests that Barnett grant her benefits under COBRA. She also seeks to recover compensatory damages, liquidated damages under the Kentucky Wage Hour Law, punitive damages, costs and attorneys' fees. Barnett has moved to dismiss counts two, three, and four, contending that she is protected from these official capacity claims under the doctrine of sovereign immunity.

II.

The analysis is essentially the same for motions brought under Rule 12(b)(6) and Rule 12(c). On a motion for judgment on the pleadings, the Court may look only to the pleadings and exhibits incorporated by reference in the complaint. Weiner v. Klais & Co., 108 F.3d 86, 88 (6th Cir. 1997). In other words, the Court is limited to the facts alleged in the pleadings. When evaluating a motion to dismiss under Rule 12(b)(6), the Court must determine whether the complaint alleges "sufficient factual matter, accepted as true, to state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.'" Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662, 678 (2009) (quoting Bell Atl. Corp. v. Twombly, 550 U.S. 544, 555 (2007)). The plausibility standard is met "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. (citing Twombly, 550 U.S. at 556). This standard requires "more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully." Id. Thus, although the complaint need not contain "detailed factual allegations" to survive a motion to dismiss, "a plaintiff's obligation to provide the grounds of his entitlement to relief requires more than labels and conclusions, and a formulaic recitation of the elements of a cause of action will not do." Twombly, 550 U.S. at 555 (internal quotation marks and alteration omitted).

III.

A. Sovereign Immunity

Barnett argues that Morehead's state common law claims against her should be dismissed because they are official capacity claims barred by sovereign immunity. It is well-settled under Kentucky law that, "when an officer or employee of a governmental agency is sued in her/her representative capacity, the officer's or employee's actions are afforded the same immunity, if any, to which the agency, itself, would be entitled." Yanero v. Davis, 65 S.W.3d 510, 522 (Ky. 2001). Further, county governments are cloaked with the same sovereign immunity from common law claims as the Commonwealth itself. Schwindel v. Meade Cnty., 113 S.W.3d 159, 163 (Ky. 2003). This immunity covers county clerks such as Barnett who are elected pursuant to the Kentucky Constitution. See St. Mathews Fire Prot. Dist. v. Aubrey, 304 S.W.3d 56, 60 (Ky. Ct. App. 2009). Sovereign immunity "is an inherent attribute of a sovereign state that precludes the maintaining of any suit against the state unless the state has given its consent or otherwise waived its immunity." Yanero, 65 S.W.3d at 517.

B. Count Two - Wrongful Discharge due to Alcohol Abuse

Morehead attempts to piece together two Kentucky statutes to claim that she was wrongfully discharged because of Barnett's alcohol abuse. See KRS § 61.180 and KRS § 446.070. First, she relies upon a penal statute regarding alcohol abuse:

If any person holding a public office shall, while in the discharge of the duties of his office, become intoxicated, or unable, incompetent, or disqualified to discharge any of the duties of his office by the use of spirituous, vinous or malt liquors, he shall be fined not less than one hundred ($100) nor more than one thousand dollars ($1, 000).

KRS § 61.180. Next, Morehead references the Kentucky statute authorizing a private cause of action for violations ...


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