Las Vegas POA

Irritation Does Not Equal Political Retaliation

Written on 12/10/2020
Will Aitchison

Alisha Congleton was employed in the Letcher County Sheriff’s Office in Kentucky for almost four years. Mickey Stines successfully ran for sheriff in the May 2018 primary and in the November 2018 general election.

Congleton openly supported Eugene Slone, a deputy in the sheriff’s office, in the primary election. During the general election Congleton made various social media posts in which she praised Barry Engle, Stines’ opponent.

Before Stines took office, the outgoing sheriff announced that he was forced to lay off Congleton, Slone, and Engle effective December 13, 2018. According to the notice, the layoffs were “due to end-of-the-year budget constraints.” Later in December, Congleton, who was then a sergeant, posted on social media that she did not support Stines in the 2018 election because “he simply does not have the moral compass or training to be a Sheriff.”

When Stines took office in January 2019, Congleton applied for a position as deputy sheriff or sergeant under Stines. Stines did not hire her and Congleton sued, claiming that Stines violated her First Amendment rights by failing to hire her as a deputy in retaliation for her political support of Stines’ opponents.

A federal court rejected Congleton’s lawsuit, finding there was no evidence that Stines’ decision was motivated by retaliation for Congleton’s support of his political opponents. As the Court saw it, “To establish the causal link between her support of Stines’ opponents during the 2018 campaign and Stines’ failure to hire her, Congleton must produce evidence that Stines would have hired her if she had not supported his opponents. Circumstantial evidence, like the timing of events or the disparate treatment of similar individuals, may support an inference that the defendant retaliated against the plaintiff. But the plaintiff must point to specific, nonconclusory evidence reasonably linking her speech to the adverse action.

“Here, Congleton submits an affidavit by Engle that Stines told him that Congleton was ‘killing him’ in getting votes in the Jenkins precinct of Letcher County, and that ‘it was obvious that Stines was aware that Alisha Congleton was openly campaigning against him and that it was irritating him.’ Congleton also submits the affidavit of Slone that it was obvious to him that Stines was aware of and irritated by Congleton’s campaign activities.

“While the Engle and Slone affidavits are evidence that Stines was irritated and upset about Congleton’s speech against him, they are not evidence that her political activity was a substantial or motivating factor in Stines’ failure to hire Congleton as a deputy. Neither Engle nor Slone provide a causal link between Stines’ irritation with Congleton’s speech and his failure to hire her.”

Congleton v. Stines, 2020 WL 3105401 (E.D. Ky. 2020).

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