Hunter v. Town of Mocksville

Decision Date21 February 2017
Docket Number1:12cv333
CourtU.S. District Court — Middle District of North Carolina
Parties Kenneth HUNTER, Rick A. Donathan, and Jerry D. Medlin, Plaintiffs, v. TOWN OF MOCKSVILLE, NORTH CAROLINA; Robert W. Cook, in his official capacity as Administrative Chief of Police of the Mocksville Police Department and in his individual capacity; and Christine W. Bralley, in her official capacity as Town Manager of the Town of Mocksville and in her individual capacity, Defendants, and the Interlocal Risk Financing Fund of North Carolina, Intervenors.

Robert M. Elliot, Alison L. Maddux, Helen L. Parsonage, Reynolds M. Elliot, Elliot Morgan Parsonage, PLLC, Winston-Salem, NC, for Plaintiffs.

Patrick Houghton Flanagan, Cranfill Sumner and Hartzog, L.L.P., Philip Marshall Van Hoy, Stephen J. Dunn, Van Hoy Reutlinger Adams & Dunn, Charlotte, NC, Norwood Pitt Blanchard, III, Crossley McIntosh & Collier, Wilmington, NC, for Defendants.

Cathryn M. Little, Little & Little, PLLC, Raleigh, NC, for Intervenors.

MEMORANDUM OPINION AND ORDER

Thomas D. Schroeder, District Judge

This case is before the court on various post-trial motions of the parties and a proposed intervenor following a jury verdict for Plaintiffs and the court's award of equitable relief in this action for wrongful discharge in violation of the First Amendment under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and State law. The purpose of this memorandum opinion and order is to resolve all outstanding motions so that a final judgment may be entered.

I. BACKGROUND

A more complete recitation of the background is set forth in the court's August 12, 2016 memorandum opinion and order (Doc. 176) and need not be repeated here.

Based on this court's rulings on post-trial equitable relief, and incorporating the information submitted by the parties at the court's request (Doc. 178), Plaintiffs' recovery against the Town of Mocksville ("Town") and Defendants Robert W. Cook and Christine W. Bralley1 as to Plaintiffs' First Amendment Free Speech claim under § 1983 (first claim for relief) and wrongful termination claim under North Carolina law (third claim for relief) is as follows:

Kenneth L. Hunter
                      Compensatory Damages:     $805,706
                      Front Pay:                $211,893
                Rick A. Donathan
                      Compensatory Damages:     $310,830
                      Front Pay:                $197,523
                Jerry D. Medlin
                      Compensatory Damages:     $288,293
                      Front Pay:                $176,299
                

In addition, on their § 1983 claims each Plaintiff was awarded, and shall recover, $10,000 in punitive damages against Defendants Cook and Bralley, individually, for a total of $20,000 per Plaintiff. (Doc. 167.)

In the current motions before the court, the following issues are raised. First, Plaintiffs Donathan and Medlin ask the court to reconsider its denial of reinstatement of their employment. (Doc. 191.) Second, the Interlocal Risk Financing Fund of North Carolina ("Fund"), the Town's municipal risk pool trust carrier which provides liability coverage for the Town, moves to intervene in order to argue that its policy limits total insurance coverage for Plaintiffs' combined claims to $1 million. (Doc. 195.) Third, the Town argues that its governmental immunity makes it liable only to the extent it has insurance coverage and that the court is precluded from awarding judgment for any amount in excess of such coverage. (Doc. 186.)

Each issue will be addressed in turn.

II. ANALYSIS
A. Motion for Reconsideration and Reinstatement

Plaintiffs Donathan and Medlin move the court to reconsider its post-trial decision to deny their request for reinstatement to their previous employment as lieutenants in the Mocksville Police Department ("MPD"). (Doc. 191.) Both men had been promoted to that position just before their termination. They argue that since the court's ruling, two factual circumstances relied upon by the court have changed: Town Manager Bralley retired from her position, and even more recently a MPD lieutenant has departed, thus creating an open position. (Doc. 204–1 at 2.)2 The Town continues to oppose reinstatement. It relies on the opinion expressed by its current Chief of Police, Todd Penley, that reinstatement "would result in hostility and antagonism within the [MPD]" because the litigation has "damaged the relationships between the plaintiffs and individuals in the local law enforcement community to such an extent that reinstatement of the plaintiffs would jeopardize public safety." (Doc. 197–1 at 2.) The Town also argues that no funding exists to create a new officer position and states that it does not wish to terminate any current officer in order to reinstate either Plaintiff. (Id. ) Of course, to the extent there is an opening within the MPD, the latter concerns would be moot.

As the court acknowledged earlier, reinstatement is the preferred remedy. (Doc. 176 at 11.) Reinstatement was declined in part because there was no position available, Defendants indicated there was no budget money to fund additional positions, and the Town Manager opposed it. The Town also presented evidence that, in its view, a working relationship would be infeasible in light of all that has transpired. That was based in part on the opinion of Bralley, who has since left. (See Doc. 170–1 at 1 (Bralley testifying that the trial "damaged the relationships between the plaintiffs and individuals employed by the Town," making reinstatement "unworkable").) Chief Penley also stated that mutual trust is vital to effective police work (Doc. 170–2 at 2), that the events of the case "damaged the relationships between the plaintiffs and individuals in the local law enforcement community," and that reinstatement "would result in hostility and antagonism within the Department" (id. at 1–2).

As to Medlin, there is evidence that his relationship with the MPD following these events has only deteriorated. On August 28, 2016, after trial in this case, Medlin posted on social media that Mocksville is a "crooked [expletive] hole of a town." (Doc. 197–1 at 2.) On November 13, 2016, he offered another online posting that questioned law enforcement's actions as to an active investigation, an action Medlin seems to acknowledge was at best ill-advised. (Id. ) Chief Penley finds these statements "unprofessional and incompatible with employment as a Mocksville police officer." (Id. ) The Town argues that these actions reinforce its concern that Medlin lacks trust within the MPD.

The court accepts the Town's statement that trust within a law enforcement department is serious. See Wootten v. Virginia , No. 6:14-cv-00013, 2016 WL 7496145, at *3 (W.D. Va. Dec. 30, 2016) (finding unique need for deference to law enforcement decisionmaking as to personnel in the chain of command), appeal docketed , No. 17–1117 (4th Cir. Jan. 26, 2017). MPD officers testified at trial that Medlin was "insubordinate" because he refused to follow orders (Doc. 37–1 at 3–4; Doc. 37–2 at 5), used MPD property for personal use (Doc. 37–1 at 3–4, 6), and colluded with Hunter to intimidate fellow MPD employees (id. at 3–4; Doc. 37–2 at 5). An additional problem for Medlin is that he is no longer certified as a law enforcement officer and thus lacks the minimum qualification to be an MPD officer. (Doc. 197–1 at 2.) Considering the complete record as to Medlin and considering his negative post-trial comments about the Town and ongoing law enforcement, the court will not change its ruling.

Donathan is in a more favorable posture, however. Testimony at trial revealed he is a decorated officer. Donathan received the "Silver Star" in 2007 for his involvement in saving several elderly residents of a nursing home during a fire. For his actions, he was inducted into the National Police Hall of Fame and received a letter of commendation from then-President George W. Bush. Donathan also received the "outstanding officer of the year award" in 2002 and 2007. The Davie County Sheriff, Andy Stokes, whom the court found credible, testified that he knew Donathan personally when they both worked the nursing home fire and was "very impressed" by him. The trial evidence revealed that Donathan was invited to Chief Cook's house a month before he was terminated, told he was a good officer, promoted to lieutenant, and advised that he was likely to be promoted to captain. Cook warned him, however, that he needed to adhere to MPD politics. (Doc. 43–2 at 8.)

Concerns of trust expressed as to Medlin3 are not evident with respect to Donathan. At trial, Defendants contended that they terminated Donathan largely because he was distracted by his operation of his personal business. The jury necessarily rejected this conclusion, and in any event there is no indication that Donathan still operates this business.4 Unlike Medlin, Donathan remains a certified law enforcement officer, ready to go to work. It has been over five years since his termination. Unlike as to Medlin, the Town has not offered any specific example of animosity as to Donathan; indeed, Chief Penley encountered him after the trial and told him he has "no preconceived notions" about him and an "open door" if he wished to talk. (Doc. 197–1 at 2–3.) Any lingering resentment within the MPD as to Donathan has likely dissipated, and he would start with a new Chief of Police who was not involved in the MPD at the time of the events leading to his termination. It is thus difficult to say that the employment relationship is irreparably damaged as to Donathan. Moreover, Chief Penley's concerns about any damaged relationships between other Plaintiffs and local law enforcement do not appear to be an issue with respect to Donathan.

However, the Town acknowledged during the February 1, 2017 telephonic hearing that the only MPD position presently available is at the entry level.5 Despite the court's inquiry, counsel for Plaintiffs would not commit that Donathan (or Medlin) was interested in that position. As the court noted before, it is disinclined to order immediate reinstatement to...

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3 cases
  • Hunter v. Town of Mocksville
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Fourth Circuit
    • July 26, 2018
    ...request for reinstatement to a lieutenant position at Mocksville PD upon the next available opening. Hunter v. Town of Mocksville , 237 F.Supp.3d 349, 354–56 (M.D.N.C. 2017).Second, the district court concluded that the Town enjoyed state-law governmental immunity from tort claims, like the......
  • In re Yahweh Ctr., Inc., CASE NO. 16-04306-5-JNC
    • United States
    • U.S. Bankruptcy Court — Eastern District of North Carolina
    • May 4, 2018
    ...at 601). Courts "should not reach interpretations that render contractual terms meaningless or redundant." Hunter v. Town of Mocksville, 237 F. Supp. 3d 349, 364 (M.D.N.C. 2017) (citing Lane v. United States, 286 F.3d 723, 731 (4th Cir. 2002)). Finally, courts should construe a contract's t......
  • Stewart Eng'g, Inc. v. Cont'l Cas. Co., 5:15-CV-377-D
    • United States
    • U.S. District Court — Eastern District of North Carolina
    • March 20, 2018
    ...whole and in the context of the facts of the particular case. See, e.g., Highwoods Props., 407 F.3d at 924; Hunter v. Town of Mocksville, 237 F. Supp. 3d 349, 361-62 (M.D.N.C. 2017), appeal docketed, No. 17-1374 (4th Cir. Mar. 24, 2017). According to Stewart, the phrase "arising out of is a......

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