Dalton-Webb v. Vill. of Wakeman

Decision Date21 August 2020
Docket NumberCase No. 3:19 CV 630
PartiesDWAYNE DALTON-WEBB, Plaintiff, v. VILLAGE OF WAKEMAN, et al., Defendants.
CourtU.S. District Court — Northern District of Ohio

Magistrate Judge James R. Knepp II


Plaintiff Dwayne Dalton-Webb brings this case against Defendants Village of Wakeman ("the Village"), Mayor Christopher J. Hipp, and Police Chief Tim Hunker1, alleging a violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 (procedural due process) (Count I), as well as state law claims of wrongful discharge (Count II) and equitable estoppel (Count III). The district court has jurisdiction under 42 U.S.C. §§ 1331 and 1367 and the parties consented to the exercise of jurisdiction by the undersigned in accordance with 28 U.S.C. § 636(c) and Civil Rule 73. (Doc. 10).

Currently pending before the Court are: (1) Defendants' Motion for Partial Judgment on the Pleadings as to Counts II and III (Doc. 13), to which Plaintiff responded (Doc. 20) and Defendants replied (Doc. 22); Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment on Count I (Doc. 24), to which Plaintiff responded (Doc. 27), and Defendants replied (Doc. 29); and (3) Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment on Count I, or alternatively Motion for Summary Judgment on Count III (Doc. 25), to which Defendants responded (Doc. 28), and Plaintiff replied (Doc. 30). For the reasons discussed below, the Court GRANTS Defendants' Motion for Summary Judgment asto the Federal Due Process claim stated in Count I (Doc. 24), and DENIES Plaintiff's Motion for Summary Judgment as to the same (Doc. 25). The Court further declines to exercise supplemental jurisdiction over Plaintiff's remaining state law claims and therefore REMANDS them to the Huron County Court of Common Pleas.

Village Hiring Practices

According to Tim Hunker, Chief of Police, the Village has three types of police officers: reserve officers, part-time officers, and full-time officers. (Doc. 25-1, at 13-14). Chief Hunker is the only full-time officer, and the Village employs approximately ten part-time officers and 20 reserve officers. Id. at 14. In contrast to part-time officers, reserve officers are unpaid and no contributions are made to the Ohio Public Employees Retirements System ("OPERS") on their behalf. Id. at 22-23.

Historical practice in the Village for hiring both reserve and part-time police officers was: (1) the police chief recommended an individual to the mayor; and (2) the mayor approved the officer and swore him or her in. Id. at 19, 24; see also Doc. 25-3, at 12 (Village Councilman Russell Dillon's testimony that police officers were hired by "usually the mayor and the police chief, up until this year"). A form "SF400" was required to be filed with the State of Ohio, signed by the officer, the mayor, and the police chief at the time of hiring. (Doc. 25-1, at 17-19, 21-22). The SF400 form contained a section to indicate the statutory authority for the officer's appointment. Id. at 24. Reserve officers were appointed under Ohio Revised Code § 737.161, whereas part-time officers were appointed under Ohio Revised Code § 737.16. Id. A new SF400 form was sent to the State when an officer's status changed from reserve to part-time. Id. at 23-24. Further, a move from reserve to part-time required the officer to undergo a physical and a drug screening. Id. at 27.In historical Village practice, an officer served a six-month probationary period upon hiring as a reserve officer, and did not serve another probationary period once hired as part-time. Id. at 28-29. Chief Hunker explained: "we just moved them into a paid slot and there was nothing formal done through council, nothing was approved." Id. at 29. During this probationary period, the officer was evaluated on whether they were "a good fit for Wakeman" or other issues and could be terminated for any reason. Id. at 26. "[T]hen after that six months would be a structural dismissal of . . . a series of write ups or certain things", but no pre-termination hearing. Id. at 26-27. Councilman Russell Dillon confirmed police officer appointments were "handled by the mayor and the police chief" without Village Council involvement. (Doc. 25-3, at 8); see also Doc. 25-3, at 11-12.

Under this old system, part-time police officers were subject to structured discipline in the form of written or verbal reprimands. (Doc. 25-1, at 36). If an officer received three such reprimands "that would be substantial enough to terminate employment" and the police chief and mayor "would try to . . . have a paper trail of . . . whatever the reasons [were] for the person leaving". Id. Chief Hunker did not recall ever terminating a part-time police officer. Id. at 36-37.

The Village hired a new law director sometime in 2016 or 2017. See id. at 30, 85. At some point after August 2017, the new law director brought it to the Village's attention that, under Ohio statute, appointing a paid police officer required the Village Council to be advised of - and approve - the hire. Id. at 30-32; Doc. 25-5, at 11. The new law director advised the Village Council that its historical practice was improper and resulted in officers not being properly appointed under Ohio Revised Code § 737.16. Id. at 110-11; see also Doc. 25-6, at 29-34. Therefore, the procedure for hiring paid police officers changed. Chief Hunker explained:

Well, now if you're a reserve and you move into a paid position, we let the council be aware who is moving that we recommend, the mayor recommends to move into that position. He would bring it up at a council meeting, and then let them know that he or she has started the six-month probationary period. And once that'scompleted, the six months is completed we bring it back to council for their approval.

(Doc. 25-1, at 32); see also Doc. 25-1, at 110. To Chief Hunker's knowledge, the current paid officers were not informed of the problem with historical hiring after it was identified. Id. at 36.

Employee Handbook

New Village hires - including police officers - were provided an employee handbook when initially hired. (Doc. 25-1, at 68); see also Doc. 25-4 (handbook). The front page of the handbook indicates it was originally adopted by the Village Council in May 2004 as Ordinance No. 2004-O-15, and most recently amended in March 2011 as Ordinance No. 2011-O-2. (Doc. 25-4, at 1). The "Purpose" section of the handbook states:

This handbook is a general guide to the Council of the Village of Wakeman's current employment policies. All employees are responsible for knowing the entire contents of this handbook. The Council of the Village of Wakeman will review, on an annual basis, the policies, procedures and benefits which it has provided, but reserves the option to make any revisions and changes as the need arises. The Council may enhance, modify, or delete any policy, procedure or benefit at any time, including the text of this handbook, and under no circumstances should anything in this handbook be considered a contract of employment, an offer of permanent employment, or a legally binding contract. This handbook is subject to change at any time, with or without notice.

Id. at 5. The handbook also contains an acknowledgement of receipt that states: "I further understand that this handbook does not constitute an employment contract." (Doc. 25-4, at 27) (emphasis in original). Plaintiff signed such an acknowledgement twice. See Docs. 24-3, 24-5; see also Doc. 25-8, at 20-23. Elsewhere, the handbook states that "[a]ll employees first hired after the effective date of this policy manual will be required to satisfactorily complete a six-month probationary period." (Doc. 25-4, at 15). It further contains information about disciplinary action (for "minor", "major", and "intolerable" infractions), including a structured/progressive disciplinary process with required written notices and hearings. Id. at 23-26.

Councilman Dillon testified that the handbook was "supposed to, basically" apply to all Village employees and provided "basic guidelines" but "nothing wrote [sic] in stone". (Doc. 25-3, at 10). It described how employment was "supposed to" work in the Village. Id. at 11. Mayor Hipp similarly testified that the handbook provided "guidelines". (Doc. 25-5, at 20). Both Chief Hunker and Mayor Hipp testified the handbook applied to all Village employees. (Doc. 25-1, at 87; Doc. 25-5, at 20).

Police Policy & Procedure Manual

The Village also had a Police Policy and Procedure Manual which it provided to new officers upon hiring. See Doc. 25-1, at 19 (explaining that new reserve officers are given the manual); Doc. 25-7 (manual). This manual pre-dated the Employee Handbook, but was never approved by the Village Council. (Doc. 25-1, at 84). The manual states that it provides the "rules and regulations for the Village of Wakeman Police Department . . . for the: full-time, part-time, and reserve officers[.]" (Doc. 25-7, at 6) (capitalization altered). It further provided for disciplinary procedures, including progressive discipline and hearings. Id. at 9-18.

Plaintiff's Employment

It is undisputed that in summer 2016, the Village - through Chief Hunker - hired Plaintiff as a reserve police officer. (Doc. 25-2, at 1-4) (SF400 Notice of Peace Officer Appointment); (Doc. 25-1, at 39-41). The SF400 form has a box checked indicating Plaintiff's status as "reserve" and that his appointment was under "Village Auxiliary/Reserve (737.161)". (Doc. 25-2, at 1, 3). It was signed by the mayor. Id. at 2, 4. In August 2017, Plaintiff met with Chief Hunker and Mayor Hipp to be sworn in as a part-time officer. (Doc. 25-8, at 24-25). His new SF400 indicated a statuschange date in 20172; it further indicated that his new status was "part-time" and that his appointment was under "Village Full-time/Part-time/Special 737.16". (Doc. 25-2, at 5). The form was again signed by the mayor. Id. at 6. Plaintiff underwent a physical and drug screening test at this time (Doc. 25-10) and filled out an...

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