from the United States District Court for the Northern
District of Ohio at Cleveland. No. 1:18-cv-00522-Dan A.
Polster, District Judge.
A. Sansalone, Timothy T. Brick, GALLAGHER SHARP LLP,
Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellant.
Chandra, Donald P. Screen, Sandhya Gupta, Patrick Kabat, THE
CHANDRA LAW FIRM LLC, Cleveland, Ohio, for Appellee.
Before: MERRITT, MOORE, and WHITE, Circuit Judges.
N. WHITE, CIRCUIT JUDGE.
this interlocutory appeal, Defendant-Appellant James Budzik
seeks reversal of the district court's denial of his
motion to dismiss based on qualified immunity.
Plaintiff-Appellee Rebecca Buddenberg, formerly the fiscal
coordinator for the Geauga County, Ohio, Health District,
alleges that she was retaliated against by her supervisor for
reporting ethical violations she observed. Budzik served as
outside legal counsel for the Health District during the
relevant time period, and allegedly facilitated and
contributed to the acts of retaliation. Accepting as true the
factual allegations in Buddenberg's complaint, she has
plausibly alleged violations of her clearly established First
Amendment rights. We therefore AFFIRM.
Buddenberg began working at the Geauga County Health District
on February 2, 2015. (Second Amended Complaint, R. 31, PID
366 ¶ 11.) In her role as fiscal coordinator, Buddenberg
was responsible for certain aspects of the Health
District's fiscal management, including processing
payroll and accounts payable, preparing fiscal reports, and
contributing to the department budget process. (Id.
¶ 12.) Buddenberg also performed various human-resource
functions, including "maintaining personnel records,
overseeing FMLA processes, and acting as the liaison for
employee-benefits coordination and injury-reporting between
the department and the County Commissioners."
(Id. ¶ 13.) Her duties did not include
reporting internal ethical violations or allegations of
discrimination to the Board of Health. (Id. ¶
14.) Defendant Robert Weisdack, Health Commissioner of Geauga
County, was Buddenberg's immediate supervisor until
roughly April 2016, when Dan Mix became her supervisor.
(Id. ¶ 15.) Buddenberg then reported to Mix,
who reported directly to Weisdack. (Id. ¶ 16.)
in her tenure, Buddenberg received positive performance
reviews from both Weisdack and Mix. Four months after she
started, Weisdack gave Buddenberg a glowing review: "I
consider Rebecca a professional-minded person";
"Rebecca shows she [is] very ethical";
"Rebecca's attitude is great and has a lot of
motivation"; "Rebecca is very genuine in her desire
to do more and has great initiative." (Id. at
PID 367 ¶ 17.) Mix gave Buddenberg a similarly positive
review the next year. (Id. ¶ 19.)
in fall 2016, Buddenberg became aware of several possible
ethical violations by Weisdack. Buddenberg learned that the
Health District had obtained a state grant for tire removal,
and, "in the absence of competitive bids, Mr. Weisdack,
along with two Health District sanitarian workers, themselves
began to undertake the work." (Id. at PID 96
¶ 21.) Buddenberg was concerned that Weisdack's
independent work represented a conflict of interest, as he
"was holding meetings during the day about the evening
work activities . . . all without seeking Board approval for
any contracts." (Id. at PID 368–69 ¶
23.) Buddenberg and Mix informed Weisdack that his work as an
independent contractor would require approval from other
local officials, but Weisdack ignored them. (Id.
the same time, Buddenberg approached Weisdack about an
apparently sex-based pay disparity between two employees
within the Health District. (Id. at PID 369 ¶
24.) When she broached the issue with him, Weisdack
"disparaged [Buddenberg], telling her that she
wasn't a lawyer, that he knew what he could do, and that
he had already forgotten more that morning than she could
ever learn in a lifetime." (Id. ¶ 25.)
then reported Weisdack's potential conflict of interest
and the disparate-pay issue to the Board of Health at a
meeting on October 24, 2016. She also voiced other concerns
about unethical conduct by Weisdack, such as accepting gifts
from contractors to whom the Health District issued permits,
ignoring Buddenberg's suggestion to install GPS units in
agency vehicles to ensure proper use of department resources,
failing to enforce attendance and break policies, failing to
honor the reference-check policy for new hires, and
disregarding the recommendations of the employees'
health-and-safety committee. (Id. ¶ 26.)
forty-eight hours of her report to the Board of Health,
Weisdack instructed Mix to change Buddenberg's work
schedule. (Id. at PID 372 ¶ 33.) Buddenberg had
always maintained a flexible schedule that allowed her to
take college classes and help take care of her grandson.
(Id. ¶ 33.) As a result of Weisdack's
order, Buddenberg was forced to quit school and "became
limited in her ability to take care of her grandson."
(Id.) Mix believed that Weisdack's decision to
change Buddenberg's schedule was in retaliation for
Buddenberg's report; he texted Buddenberg, "he was
mad at you for going to [the] board . . . He told me to get
rid of you." (Id. ¶ 36.) Two other
employees continued to enjoy a flexible schedule, suggesting
that Buddenberg was targeted by Weisdack. (Id.
¶ 35.) Mix also noted a change in Weisdack's
behavior after the October 24, 2016 meeting. In a statement
to the board, Mix wrote, "He became dictator-like in his
dealings with staff. Since that date Bob has spent most of
his energy intimidating staff members, instilling a sense
of fear, and aligning staff members against one
another." (Id. ¶ 39.)
continued to report Weisdack's conduct to the Board. From
October 31, 2016 to February 1, 2017, Buddenberg wrote
multiple emails to several members of the Board of Health and
to the Board's attorney in which she detailed
Weisdack's ongoing acts of retaliation. (Id. at
PID 374–376.) Despite her reports, the Board failed to
intervene. Indeed, on November 29, 2016, the Board renewed
Weisdack's contract. (Id. at PID 377 ¶ 51.)
In January 2017, Mix was forced to resign. (Id. at
PID 380–81 ¶ 62.) On February 15, 2017, having