Simmons lawsuit alleges violation of First Amendment
Thomas eliminated as defendant in suit; Magee, ‘X,’ added
By John Howell
Sonny Simmons’ lawsuit against Panola County and Supervisors Cole Flint and John Thomas individually took an unexpected turn last week when Simmons’ attorney filed an amended complaint removing Thomas and adding former County Administrator Kelley Magee and an unknown person as defendants.
The suit in U.S. District Court, Northern Mississippi, now styled as “Harry W. Simmons versus Panola County, Mississippi, Cole Flint, Kelly Magee and ‘X,’ In Their Individual Capacities,” no longer names Supervisor Thomas as a defendant. The amended complaint was filed Friday. The lawsuit was first filed in February.
In the complaint, which states the plaintiff’s side of the argument, Simmons seeks to recover actual damages from the Panola County Board of Supervisors and Flint, individually, for violating his First Amendment right and to recover actual and punitive damages from Flint, Magee and “X” for “malicious interference with employment.”
Thomas’ elimination as a defendant was prompted during depositions taken June 29, according to a motion by Simmons through his attorney, Jim Waide of Tupelo.
“The depositions revealed there is no individual liability for Defendant John Thomas, in his individual capacity, but indicate that a new defendant should be added,” Waide states.
“Defendant ‘X’ is a member of the Board of Directors of Panola County Partnership, Inc.,” the complaint states, “who Flint claims invited him to attend a meeting of the Board of Directors of Panola County Partnership, Inc. to discuss a newsletter written by Plaintiff. The true name of Defendant ‘X’ is unknown, since Flint claimed at the deposition that he does not remember his name.” The unknown Partnership board member is cited as a defendant to preserve claims against him should discovery reveal that he had a role in Simmons’ discharge.
Simmons’ discharge followed his publication of the September 2016 Partnership Progress Monthly Newsletter in which he criticized Thomas for voting against a request for increased county funding for the organization which the four other supervisors had supported.
The specific instance cited is an appearance by Flint and Magee before Partnership directors several weeks after the newsletter’s publication. The complaint claims that Flint told the Partnership directors he was speaking for the entire Board of Supervisors. He was critical of the statement in the newsletter and threatened to “withhold money to the partnership (sic) because of the newsletter.”
Free speech violated
Simmons’ lawsuit alleges further that Magee had “malice and ill will” against him for “personal reasons” and that Flint bore “personal animosity” against him because he had misinterpreted his statement in the newsletter to be critical of all five supervisors.
“Defendants Flint and Panola County, Mississippi, are liable to Plaintiff for causing Plaintiff’s discharge based on Plaintiff’s exercise of First Amendment right to speech on matters of public concern,” the complaint alleges. “Defendants Flint and Magee are liable to Plaintiff for the supplemental state law claim of malicious interference with employment,” according to the complaint. Defendant “X” would also be liable if his identity is determined and if he is also determined to have had a role in “maliciously causing Plaintiff’s discharge.”
Simmons requests actual and punitive damages “in an amount to be determined by a jury.”
The complaint mistakenly claims that Simmons’ statement was published in “the newspaper.” Simmons’ newsletter reports were published monthly in The Panolian as a column, “From the Director’s Chair.” However, after the September, 2016 newsletter was published prior to the column’s publication in the newspaper, its newspaper publication was cancelled at Simmons’ request.