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Alexander v. Wisconsin Department of Children and Family Services

United States District Court, E.D. Wisconsin

October 18, 2019

DEANNA ALEXANDER, Plaintiff,
v.
WISCONSIN DEPARTMENT OF CHILDREN AND FAMILY SERVICES, et al., Defendants.

          DECISION AND ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTIONS TO DISMISS

          NANCY JOSEPH United States Magistrate Judge.

         Deanna Alexander, a former Section Chief for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Family Services (“DCF”), sues DCF, former Deputy Secretary of DCF Lisa Marks, DCF's former in-house counsel Mary Burke (collectively the “State Defendants”), and Steve F. Taylor, a private citizen, for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments, 42 U.S.C. § 1983; civil conspiracy, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(3); state common-law wrongful termination; and state tortious interference with relationships. Taylor and the State Defendants move to dismiss Alexander's conspiracy count on the grounds that it fails to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Fed.R.Civ.P. 12(b)(6). Taylor also moves under Rule 12(b)(6) to dismiss Alexander's tortious interference count. For the reasons that follow, the defendants' motions are denied.

         BACKGROUND

         According to the Amended Complaint, in 2012, Deanna Alexander was elected to serve on the Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors. (First Amended Complaint ¶ 4009, Docket # 30.) A few years later, in the summer of 2016, she was hired as a Section Chief for the Wisconsin Department of Children and Family Services. (Id. ¶ 4006.) Alexander continued to serve as a County Supervisor while employed with DCF. (Id. ¶¶ 4011-15.) At DCF, Alexander's direct supervisor was Division Administrator Robin Joseph. (Id. ¶¶ 4015, 4019, 4022, 4026.) Joseph, in turn, directly reported to the Secretary's Office of DCF. (Id. ¶ 4019.) In April 2017, then-Governor Scott Walker appointed Lisa Marks as the Deputy Secretary of DCF. (Id. ¶ 4030.) Marks and Governor Walker had previously “worked closely together in Milwaukee County government.” (Id. ¶ 4031.)

         Alexander's employment with DCF was going well-she consistently received positive performance evaluations and praise from Joseph-until early 2018, when Marks and Steve Taylor, then a Milwaukee County Supervisor, allegedly began scheming as to how to unlawfully oust Alexander from her State job. (Id. ¶¶ 4027-29, 4051.) Alexander states that Taylor is a Republican and a close political ally of Governor Walker, (id. ¶ 4053), and that Walker, Marks, and Taylor worked closely together and were connected politically during Walker's time as Milwaukee County Executive. (Id. ¶ 4033.)

         On March 28, 2018, Alexander wrote an article speaking out against the sexual harassment and sex discrimination she had allegedly experienced at the hands of Taylor. (Id. ¶ 4052.) The article explained in detail how Taylor had refused to participate in a meeting involving government officials until Alexander, the only female, left the room and how, after the meeting, Taylor told Alexander she could go into the room “if she wanted ‘sloppy seconds.'” (Id. ¶ 4056.) The article also expressed Alexander's support for Taylor's Democratic opponent in the upcoming election, Patti Logsdon. (Id. ¶ 4058.) Alexander's article garnered significant media attention and resulted in other County officials and citizens standing in unity with her. (Id. ¶¶ 4062-66.) The publicity surrounding Alexander's article contributed to Taylor losing his seat as a County Supervisor to Logsdon in the 2018 Spring election. (Id. ¶ 4067.)

         In retaliation for the article and Alexander's perceived aligning with Democrats, Taylor and the Walker administration, through Marks and Mary Burke, DCF's in-house counsel, allegedly conspired together to have Alexander fired. (Id. ¶¶ 4068-69, 4070.) Taylor complained about Alexander to her supervisor, Joseph. (Id. ¶¶ 4069(a)-(b).) Joseph, however, did not believe Taylor's complaints had merit, so Taylor contacted Joseph's superiors, including but not limited to Marks. (Id. ¶¶ 4069(c)-(d).)

         Thereafter, Alexander began experiencing problems with her superiors at DCF. In April 2018, Joseph drafted Alexander's performance evaluation, which, like the previous one, was quite positive. (Id. ¶¶ 4103-06, 4111.) Marks instructed Joseph not to finalize or sign the evaluation; Joseph did not receive a similar directive regarding any of her other subordinates. (Id. ¶¶ 4107-08, 4112.) Although Joseph initially withheld the evaluation as instructed, she did advise Alexander to file a complaint with HR and seek out assistance from an attorney. (Id. ¶¶ 4109-10.) Joseph ultimately signed the evaluation as originally drafted. (Id. ¶¶ 4113-14.) In response, Marks allegedly instructed Joseph not to have any more contact with Alexander and told her that the Secretary's Office would be taking over the direct supervision of Alexander. (Id. ¶ 4115.)

         Marks also drafted an email for Joseph's signature, revoking Alexander's previously authorized flexible work schedule and informing Alexander that future requests for an alternative schedule would need advance approval from the Secretary's Office. (Id. ¶¶ 4116- 18.) Around this same time, two separate DCF colleagues told Alexander that they heard that Marks was handing off her work to others. (Id. ¶ 4120.) Alexander became concerned that she was being targeted, and she expressed her beliefs to Marks and DCF's Affirmative Action Officer. (Id. ¶¶ 4123-29.)

         On Joseph's recommendation, Alexander filed an internal complaint alleging that she was being targeted, harassed, and treated unfairly on the basis of her sex. (Id. ¶ 4131.) The complaint was sent to the Wisconsin Department of Administration (“DOA”) for investigation. (Id. ¶ 4132.) Alexander told DOA investigators “that she was making this protected complaint at the suggestion of her supervisor, Dr. Joseph.” (Id. ¶¶ 4133, 4135.) Despite assurances that the investigation would be confidential, (id. ¶ 4134), on May 5, 2018, DCF Secretary Eloise Anderson told Joseph “that she was being fired because she had coached Ms. Alexander to retain an attorney, ” “Ms. Alexander was ‘at the governor's office running her mouth, '” and “‘they had to fire Dr. Joseph to get to Ms. Alexander, '” (id. ¶ 4136). A few weeks later, Joseph was interviewed by DOA investigators. (Id. ¶ 4141.) She told them that Alexander “was an unproblematic employee who was being treated unfairly.” (Id.) Joseph eventually decided to resign in lieu of termination. (Id. ¶ 4137.)

         The same day Joseph met with investigators, a disciplinary personnel investigation was opened concerning Alexander. (Id. ¶ 4150.) Alexander was summoned to an investigatory meeting on June 1, 2018-the day Joseph's resignation took effect. (Id. ¶¶ 4151-52.) “Alexander was interrogated . . . for four hours, mostly regarding the schedule she kept.” (Id. ¶ 4153.) The investigation concluded on June 12, 2018, finding no wrongdoing by Alexander. (Id. ¶¶ 4157-59.) Nevertheless, on June 15, 2018, Alexander's probationary employment was terminated purportedly because “‘[her] performance [did] not meet the standards expected of [her].'” (Id. ¶¶ 4161-62.)

         Almost immediately after she was fired, Alexander was contacted by Dan Bice, a reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. (Id. ¶ 4164(a).) Bice told Alexander that “Taylor was ‘taking credit' for Ms. Alexander's termination.” (Id. ¶¶ 4164(b)-(c).) Bice wrote an article, published on June 27, 2018, claiming that Taylor had told him that he complained to Alexander's supervisor earlier that year “that she was doing county campaign work on state time.” (Id. ¶ 4164(d)[1].) The article also claimed that Taylor had told Bice that “he called the state” after Alexander apparently told Logsdon, Taylor's election opponent, that Taylor was absent for a certain government meeting. (Id.) About three months after the article ran, Bice claimed that Taylor informed him that Alexander “was ‘in mediation' with the State.” (Id. ¶ 4168(a).)

         By February 2019, Alexander had obtained employment as Treasurer for the Republican Party of Milwaukee County. (Id. ¶ 4170.) Taylor called Sam Hagedorn, the organization's Chair, “to complain about, and question the wisdom of, having Ms. Alexander serve the Republican Party as Treasurer.” (Id. ...


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