Highbaugh v. Consolidated City of Indianapolis

Decision Date09 November 1982
Docket NumberNo. 1-181S32,1-181S32
Citation441 N.E.2d 501
PartiesJames HIGHBAUGH, Plaintiff-Appellant, v. The CONSOLIDATED CITY OF INDIANAPOLIS, Defendant-Appellee.
CourtIndiana Appellate Court

William A. Hasbrook, Walter F. Lockhart, Ruckelshaus, Roland & O'Connor, Indianapolis, for plaintiff-appellant.

John P. Ryan, Richard S. Ewing, Linda M. Tienstra, City-County Legal Div., Indianapolis, for defendant-appellee.

NEAL, J.

STATEMENT OF THE CASE

James Highbaugh (Highbaugh) appeals an unfavorable review by the Hendricks Circuit Court of a disciplinary action brought by the Merit Board of the Indianapolis Police Department that resulted in his discharge.

We affirm.

STATEMENT OF THE FACTS

The facts as found by the trial court and as appear from the record of the Merit Board proceedings are essentially as follows. On May 23, 1979, shortly after Highbaugh was apprised that he had been placed on a six-month suspension as a result of disciplinary proceedings, Highbaugh encountered in the Indianapolis Police Department headquarters a reporter for the Indianapolis Star, Patrick Morrison. Highbaugh conversed with Morrison and during the course of this conversation related to the reporter that he stood by his earlier contention than an innocent man had recently been convicted of murder, and that another individual, whom he identified, was actually responsible for the murder. At that time, a new trial had been ordered for the man previously convicted, and was pending. 1 Highbaugh referred to Chief of Police Eugene Gallagher and Deputy Chief Jack Cottey as "racist, gutless men," and, further, attributed his suspension to pressure from Deputy Chief Cottey, with whom he had had personal conflicts in the past. Morrison wrote a story relating the substance of Highbaugh's remarks that was subsequently published in the Indianapolis Star.

As a result of this incident, disciplinary proceedings 2 were conducted against Highbaugh. The disciplinary Board of Captains found Highbaugh to have violated several Department rules and regulations. The Chief of Police concurred with the Board of Captains and recommended to the Merit Board that Highbaugh be discharged from the Department.

On September 5, 1979, a de novo proceeding was conducted before the Merit Board. At the outset of the hearing, in which Highbaugh was the only person to testify, Highbaugh stipulated to the truth of the facts concerning his conversation with Morrison as hereinbefore related. He testified that at the time he made the disparaging remarks he was "pretty tee'd off," having just learned at the conclusion of his shift that Chief Gallagher had ordered a six-month suspension, while the Board of Captains had recommended a suspension of only four days. Highbaugh stated that he was sorry for what he had said and that he thought Chief Gallagher was "a hell of a guy." He remained steadfast, however, in his personal belief concerning the innocence of the man convicted of murder. Additionally, Highbaugh testified concerning previous conflicts he had had with Deputy Chief Cottey.

The Merit Board found Highbaugh to have violated the following Department rules and regulations:

"Section II--Breach of Discipline

E. No member shall publicly criticize the department or any of its officer if that criticism is in any way defamatory, obscene, unlawful or tends to impair the efficient operation of the department.

* * *

* * *

H. Officers who are on suspension are charged with the responsibility of conforming to the department's rules, policies and procedures to the same extent as if he [sic] were not on suspension.

* * *

* * *

Section III. Insubordination

A. No member shall make public comment on the official action of a supervisory officer in a detrimental manner.

B. No member shall be insubordinate or act with disrespect to any supervising officer.

* * *

* * *

Section IX. Failing to Cooperate or be Truthful

C. All members shall cooperate with representatives of the news media but shall not divulge confidential or personal information nor information which might jeopardize any pending criminal or administrative case. All further inquiries by the news media shall be directed to the Public Information Officer."

The Merit Board found that while the evidence was sufficient to prove a violation of Section II(H), supra, no punishment should be imposed therefor.

On the basis of these violations, the Merit Board ordered Highbaugh's discharge. The trial court affirmed the Merit Board's action on judicial review.

ISSUES

Highbaugh presents two issues for review, which we rephrase as follows:

I. Whether sufficient evidence was adduced to sustain the findings of the Merit Board and the trial court's affirmance thereof; and

II. Whether the imposition of discipline under these facts constitutes an infringement upon Highbaugh's rights of freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States.

DISCUSSION AND DECISION

Issue I. Sufficiency of the evidence

Highbaugh contends there was insufficient evidence to support the findings that his statements were made publicly; that they were detrimental to the highest officers of the Department, the police force, or the community at large; that they were defamatory, obscene or unlawful; or that they tended to impair the efficient operation of the Department or jeopardize a pending criminal case. Highbaugh additionally complains that there was a total failure to relate his statements to the charges against him, as he was the only person to testify at the Merit Board hearing.

We initially comment upon our standard of judicial review in cases of this nature. Ind.Code 18-4-12-27(h), prescribing the procedures by which an aggrieved officer may secure judicial review of Merit Board action, stated in part:

"The [reviewing] court, without jury, shall review the record and render its decision as in other administrative reviews."

In State ex rel. Public Service Commission v. Boone Circuit Court, (1956) 236 Ind. 202, 211, 138 N.E.2d 4, the court stated:

"[A] review or appeal to the courts from an administrative order or decision is limited to a consideration of whether or not the order was made in conformity with proper legal procedure, is based upon substantial evidence, and does not violate any constitutional, statutory, or legal principle."

Cited in City of Mishawaka v. Stewart, (1974) 261 Ind. 670, 677, 310 N.E.2d 65, where it is further observed:

"Insofar as the findings of fact by an administrative board are concerned, the reviewing court is bound by them, if they are supported by the evidence. It may not substitute its judgment for that of the board. Kinzel v. Rettinger (1972), 151 Ind.App. 119, 277 N.E.2d 913."

We have examined the evidence adduced before the Merit Board, including those facts that were stipulated, and are satisfied there was substantial evidence before the Merit Board to support its findings and decision. We cannot say as to any particular finding that the evidence admits of but one conclusion and that the opposite conclusion was reached. It is clearly not unreasonable to infer that the public characterization of the Chief of Police and the Deputy Chief as "racist, gutless men" is detrimental to those officers, their subordinates, and the Department as a whole, or that such public comment would tend to impair the efficient operation of the Department. Neither is it unreasonable to infer that Highbaugh's actions in relating to the reporter his personal opinion regarding the murder case, in which a new trial had been ordered but had not as yet commenced, might jeopardize that pending case. Although Highbaugh baldly asserts his comments were not made publicly, he neither develops a cogent argument nor cites authority in support thereof; nevertheless we think there is no question but that these were public utterances.

It has been observed that the discipline of police officers is an executive, and not a judicial, function. City of Gary v. Gause, (1974) 162 Ind.App. 97, 317 N.E.2d 887. We find there was sufficient evidence to support the findings of the Merit Board and that the Merit Board was acting within the scope of its authority in determining there was sufficient evidence of misconduct on the part of Highbaugh to warrant his discharge. Although reasonable persons might disagree as to whether that decision was appropriate, neither the trial court nor this court may substitute its judgment for that of the Merit Board.

Issue II. Constitutionally protected speech

Highbaugh contends that his statements to the reporter were protected by the First Amendment, relying upon Pickering v. Board of Education of Township High School District 205, Will County, (1968) 391 U.S. 563, 88 S.Ct. 1731, 20 L.Ed.2d 811. While we agree that Pickering provides the appropriate analytical framework for the resolution of this issue, we do not agree that Pickering compels the result urged by Highbaugh.

The issue in Pickering was whether a public school teacher could, consonant with First and Fourteenth Amendment protections, be dismissed for causing to be published in a newspaper a letter critical of his superintendent and school board, despite an administrative determination to the effect...

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1 cases
  • City of Indianapolis v. Heath
    • United States
    • Indiana Appellate Court
    • 19 November 1997
    ...to erode the confidence that a considerable segment of a population has in its police department. Highbaugh v. Consolidated City of Indianapolis, 441 N.E.2d 501, 505 (Ind.Ct.App.1982). Therefore, the City had an interest in limiting Officer Heath's freedom of expression which it could not h......

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