After Sheriff Joey Kyle resigned from the Christian County, Missouri Sheriff’s Office following his guilty plea for violating federal law, four candidates ran for sheriff in the general election, including Brad Cole (Republican candidate) and Keith Mills (Independent candidate). Mills was the only candidate who was employed by the Sheriff’s Office. Between Kyle’s resignation and the election, Dwight McNiel served as the interim sheriff.
As the only internal candidate, Mills had the support of many of the Sheriff’s Office’s employees. Deputy Sheriff Robert Curtis publicly endorsed Mills. In support of Mills, Curtis talked to people, knocked on doors, handed out literature, posted on Facebook, and put up a yard sign at his residence.
Like Curtis, Deputy Sheriff Tim Bruce also publicly supported Mills for sheriff, posting on Facebook, telling friends and family to vote for Mills, and loaning Mills a flatbed trailer for Mills to use in a public parade. Bruce also told three or four people in the Sheriff’s Office that “if you elect Brad Cole, you’re trading one crook for another.”
One week before the election, McNiel told Bruce that he “needed to be on the right side to keep his job and the right side is Brad Cole.” One of McNiel’s interim command staff members, Steve Haefling, made “similar comments two or three times about supporting the right candidate for a few weeks before the election.” Prior to the election, Cole would come to the Sheriff’s Office and meet with the interim staff, after which “the interim staff would state that the deputies had a one in four chance of keeping their jobs.”
Cole won the election on August 4, 2015. On August 7, 2015, Cole assumed the duties of sheriff and terminated both Curtis and Bruce. Curtis and Bruce sued, contending their terminations violated their First Amendment rights.
The federal Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals rejected the lawsuit. The Court held that under a Supreme Court decision, “A government employer can take adverse employment actions against employees for protected First Amendment activities if they hold confidential or policymaking positions for which political loyalty is necessary to an effective job performance. To determine whether deputy sheriffs in Missouri hold confidential or policymaking positions for which political loyalty is necessary to an effective job performance, we must look to the role of the deputy sheriff under Missouri law.
“Sheriffs in Missouri are elected officials. Missouri sheriffs are empowered to appoint their deputies. They are the sheriff’s agents who ‘hold office at the pleasure of the sheriff.’ The deputies aid the sheriff in ‘the proper discharge of the duties of his office.’ In fact, the deputy sheriff has ‘all the powers and may perform any of the duties’ of the sheriff.
“Under Missouri law, a deputy sheriff is the alter ego of the sheriff. Missouri deputy sheriffs are at-will employees who serve at the pleasure of the sheriff. By contrast, deputies in other cases were protected by civil service or a collective bargaining agreement that prohibited the sheriff from discriminating against them for their political beliefs and from disciplining or discharging them except for just cause.
“Because Curtis and Bruce, in their role as Missouri deputy sheriffs, held policymaking positions for which political loyalty is necessary to an effective job performance, Cole was permitted to take adverse employment actions against them and did not violate their constitutional rights.”
Curtis v. Christian County, Missouri, 2020 WL 3477025 (8th Cir. 2020).