727 F.2d 1329 (4th Cir. 1984), 81-2060, Jones v. Dodson

Docket Nº:81-2060, 81-2091.
Citation:727 F.2d 1329
Party Name:Clara B. JONES, Appellee, v. Ray M. DODSON, both individually and in his capacity of Sheriff of Page County, Appellant. Edward M. SEDWICK, Appellant, v. Ray M. DODSON, Individually and in his capacity of Sheriff of Page County, Appellee.
Case Date:February 07, 1984
Court:United States Courts of Appeals, Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit
 
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Page 1329

727 F.2d 1329 (4th Cir. 1984)

Clara B. JONES, Appellee,

v.

Ray M. DODSON, both individually and in his capacity of

Sheriff of Page County, Appellant.

Edward M. SEDWICK, Appellant,

v.

Ray M. DODSON, Individually and in his capacity of Sheriff

of Page County, Appellee.

Nos. 81-2060, 81-2091.

United States Court of Appeals, Fourth Circuit

February 7, 1984

Argued Feb. 9, 1983.

Page 1330

Edward J. White, Alexandria, Va. (George W. Shanks, Luray, Va., on brief), for appellant.

Douglas L. Guynn, Harrisonburg (Phillip C. Stone, Wharton, Aldhizer & Weaver, Harrisonburg, on brief), for appellee.

Before PHILLIPS, and CHAPMAN, Circuit Judges, THOMAS E. FAIRCHILD, Senior United States Circuit Judge for the Seventh Circuit, sitting by designation.

JAMES DICKSON PHILLIPS, Circuit Judge:

Plaintiffs Clara B. Jones and Edward M. Sedwick brought this action under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 against Sheriff Ray M. Dodson for wrongfully discharging them from the Sheriff's Department because of their political affiliations and expressions. The jury returned a verdict for the plaintiffs on both claims. On Dodson's motion for judgment n.o.v., the district court upheld the verdict in favor of Jones 1 but granted judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the claim by Sedwick. On cross-appeals by the aggrieved parties, we conclude that the court failed properly to apply controlling doctrine in critical respects prejudicial to Sedwick on his claim and to Dodson on Jones's claim. On that basis we vacate the judgment and remand for limited new trials as to both claims.

I

This controversy arises from an imbroglio of criminal activity and political machination in the Page County, Virginia, Sheriff's Department in the mid-1970's. The only undisputed facts of the case are that Jones and Sedwick, two Democratic department employees hired by an incumbent Democratic Sheriff, were "terminated" by the Republican successor to that office. The reasons for the discharges and other issues were hotly disputed by the parties but were resolved by the jury in favor of Jones and Sedwick.

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Sedwick, a lifelong Democrat active at times in party affairs, joined the Page County Sheriff's Department in 1968 as a regular deputy under the then newly-elected Democratic Sheriff, Kenneth E. Kerkhoff. Sedwick and Kerkhoff had been friends before this time, and this friendship plus Sedwick's meritorious service to the department prompted Kerkhoff to elevate Sedwick to "Chief Deputy" with a rank of "lieutenant" in 1973. The promotion was more illusory than real, however, because it seemingly entailed nothing more than adding lieutenant's bars to the collar of Sedwick's uniform. Sedwick was given no additional duties or responsibilities and his salary was unaffected.

In the mid-1970's, the department was scandalized by allegations that acts of corruption and criminal activity were being committed by members of the department. In January of 1976, the Page County Circuit Court removed Kerkhoff as sheriff and appointed Sedwick as interim sheriff. One month later, the Circuit Court appointed Dodson, a Republican, to replace Sedwick as acting sheriff until the regular elections were held in November. The contested discharges in this case took place during the time Dodson was acting sheriff--a time when politics and the Sheriff's Department were hotly discussed topics in Page County. Dodson was a candidate for the office of sheriff in the November election.

Aware of the political climate prevailing at the time of his ascension to office, Dodson informed all employees of the department that they were to stay out of politics, to concentrate on their work, and to leave political matters to him. Dodson testified at trial that he meant this prohibition to apply only while the employees were on duty; he did not care what political activity the employees engaged in while off duty. Dodson also testified that he abided by his own regulation, campaigning only during off-duty hours and using his personal car, and that he did not ask his employees to campaign or vote for him.

Dodson retained Sedwick during this interregnum, and there has not been any question about the adequacy of Sedwick's professional performance. On September 15, 1976, however, Dodson confronted Sedwick with allegations that Sedwick had been actively campaigning against him. Dodson testified that he had been advised that Sedwick, while on duty, had organized and attended a political meeting at Sedwick's home. The meeting, also attended by former Sheriff Kerkhoff, two former deputies, and Norris Richards, another current deputy of the department, was allegedly designed to promote Kerkhoff's candidacy for sheriff as an independent.

The parties' recollection of events at this point varied widely. Dodson claimed that he had heard of this meeting only several days before he confronted Sedwick on September 15. On that day, Dodson first asked Norris Richards about the meeting; Richards allegedly admitted attending the meeting but left once he realized it was a political meeting. (Richards did not testify at trial.) Dodson testified that he did not fire Richards because Richards had been honest with him.

Several hours later, Dodson asked Sedwick about the meeting. Dodson testified that Sedwick denied that the meeting ever took place; when told of Richard's "confession," Sedwick became verbally abusive and declared he would do as he pleased and that he hoped Kerkhoff would win the next election for sheriff. Upon hearing this, Dodson handed Sedwick a previously-typed letter terminating his employment for campaigning against him: "I feel that since you have been campaigning against me I must in all good faith to the Republican Party and myself release you from duty." 2

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Sedwick, not surprisingly, recalled all this differently. Sedwick's version was that Dodson did ask him about the meeting, but Sedwick never denied (or admitted) attending it. Dodson then asked Sedwick to resign, and when Sedwick refused to do so Dodson presented him with the letter of discharge. Sedwick testified at trial that the meeting was held in late June of 1976--well over two months before Dodson fired him--and that the meeting occurred while Sedwick was off duty. Sedwick also testified that no campaigning or political activity took place; rather, the meeting was simply a social gathering of old friends who engaged in some general conversation about politics while enjoying beer and pretzels out in the carport.

At trial, Dodson claimed that he discharged Sedwick for actively campaigning against him at this political meeting while on duty. Dodson did not know what had actually occurred at the meeting and on cross-examination he stated repeatedly that he did not know whether Sedwick was actually on duty or not. He also made no effort to determine by checking duty logs or other sources whether Sedwick was on or off duty at the time, but rather relied on the word of an informer (who had not attended the meeting).

On September 26, 1976, less than two weeks after Sedwick was fired, Dodson also discharged Clara Jones from the department. Jones had joined the department under Sheriff Kerkhoff in 1970 as a dispatcher, an unsworn position. She was an active Democrat and a supporter of Kerkhoff even while employed by Dodson. As with Sedwick's discharge, the parties are in dispute over the circumstances surrounding Jones's discharge.

Dodson testified that in the late afternoon of September 26, a deputy at the office called him at home to inform him that several women were in the office paying a social visit on Jones. According to Dodson, this was in violation of his policy against non-business visitors loafing in the office. Dodson went to the office to ask Jones about the visitors and Jones replied that she could talk to whom she pleased. During the conversation Jones also said she hoped that Kerkhoff would get re-elected and that she would work for his success. Dodson assumed that Jones was working for Kerkhoff and became "agitated" by her response; he told her that she was fired but refused to give her a letter like the one given to Sedwick.

Jones's version again differs markedly from Dodson's. Jones testified that the women came to the office uninvited on the night of the 25th around midnight and that they engaged in some general, non-political conversation with Jones and several others in the office for about fifteen minutes. When Dodson asked her the next day about the visit, he gently remonstrated with her for having the visitors and then inquired who she planned to vote for. When she replied "Kerkhoff," he got angry and fired her.

Dodson's claimed reason for firing Jones was for violating the no-visitor rule and then being insubordinate. 3 This was disputed

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by Jones's testimony that she had never been informed of any such policy and had in fact been present when Dodson removed "No Loafing" signs that Kerkhoff had installed in the office. Dodson's own regulations manual, published several months later, contained no regulation against visitors. And the deputy sheriff who was present with the two uninvited visitors and then informed Dodson also violated the "no visitor" policy by not asking the women to leave, but no adverse action was taken against him.

The court submitted the case to the jury for return of a special verdict. 4 The jury specially found that both plaintiffs were performing their work satisfactorily; that they were terminated solely because of their political affiliation or beliefs; that Dodson did not act in good faith in firing them; and that the terminations were not reasonably related to the efficient operation of the department. On this basis damages were awarded to both...

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