Fired officers getting their day in court
Published 5:10 pm Tuesday, May 3, 2016
By Lynn Hall
It has been a long time coming – four years and four months to be exact – but three former Mocksville police officers are finally in U.S. District Court this week seeking damages in what they claim were their wrongful terminations from the police department at the end of 2011.
The trial started Monday in the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem.
Kenneth Hunter, Jerry Medlin and Rick Donathan are suing former Police Chief Robert Cook, Town Manager Christine Bralley and the Town of Mocksville over what they contend was a violation of their right of freedom of speech under federal and state law.
The case revolves around their concern that there were serious problems within the police department related to Cook’s leadership.
In previous court documents, those concerns dealt with allegations of drinking alcohol while in uniform, the mismanagement of department and Davie County Law Enforcement Association funds, a failure to discipline other officers for serious incidents of misconduct, Cook’s violation of the law by driving a police car with blue lights flashing and other activities not appropriate for someone who was not a certified law enforcement officer, and perceived racial discrimination.
Unable to find a way to initiate an investigation into the department at the local level, the officers eventually contacted the governor’s office.
The trial got under way on Monday, and in opening statements, the plaintiff and defense attorneys laid out their case before the jury of seven, six women and one man.
Michael Elliot of Elliot, Morgan and Parsonage PLLC, attorney for the officers, referred to Hunter, Medlin and Donathan as decorated and dedicated officers without a single blemish on their service records.
“Ken Hunter was a 27-year law enforcement veteran,” Elliot noted, saying he’d moved up through the ranks to become assistant police chief, working under five other chiefs. Donathan was a 13-year veteran of the Mocksville Police Department and was promoted just one month prior to his termination. Medlin was a Davie County sheriff’s deputy prior to joining the Police Department in 2006.
“These extraordinary officers watched as the reputation of the department continued to deteriorate over the years,” Michael Elliot said, adding that all they wanted was to see an outside agency do an investigation of the department.
When they were unable to resolve the matter locally, Elliot said the officers contacted first the local chapter of the NAACP, later the attorney general’s office and eventually the governor’s office because “they believed they had no other choice. They were afraid about what would happen if it were discovered they were the one’s requesting the investigation, but felt they had to do something.”
Initially, the calls were made anonymously without reference to any names or even the location of the law enforcement agency. The officers were not on duty at the time of the call and believed they were acting as private citizens in regard to a matter of public concern.
However, once the individual at the governor’s office indicated there might be something that could be done, the officers provided their names and the Mocksville department. It was indicated that the SBI would be contacted.
A week after the call to the governor’s office, Hunter, Medlin and Donathan were fired on the same day. The officers allege that the sheriff was made aware of the call, which resulted in their termination.
Elliot said the result of the termination has caused a great deal of suffering for the officers and their families, and “we will be asking you (the jury) to compensate them.”
Defense attorney Patrick Flanagan in his opening statement called the reason for termination a “theory.” He said there would be no evidence that Cook or Town Manager Christine Bralley knew about the call to the governor’s office.
“These folks have been steadfast in their actions and statements that before the firings, they did not know about the call to the governor,” Flanagan told the jury. “It’s a theory that they were fired due to the phone call but you will not see any evidence that they knew.”
Flanagan said what the jury will hear is that Chief Cook had issues with the officers in the fall of 2011. Cook felt the department needed restructuring and Hunter was moved out of a supervisory position.
Following statements, Medlin was the first witness called to the stand by attorney Robert Elliot.
A native of Davie County, Medlin testified he joined the Army Reserve a year before he finished high school, but came back to earn his GED following his service. He completed the Basic Law Enforcement Training Program in 2002 and started with the Davie sheriff’s department as a patrol officer in 2003. He requested a move to school resource officer because he liked working with young people and thought this was an opportunity to have an impact on students making positive choices.
“I accepted a position with the Mockville Police Department in 2006 as a patrol officer after being approached about the job by Chief Cook,” he said. “In 2008 I was promoted to detective. Major (Ken) Hunter approached me and said he had been following my progress and was impressed and that he had a spot open.”
Medlin earned the Meritorious Service Award for his efforts in the apprehension of a serial bank robber who was one of the most wanted criminals at the time.
Medlin testified he was proud to be a member of the department, and felt it was growing and could be one of the best in the state. His attitude about the department eventually changed and like other officers, he became concerned about Cook’s leadership.
Robert Elliot then asked Medlin about a letter he had written to Bralley in June of 2009 about some of the issues. In the letter Medlin noted that he has concerned about illegal behavior on the part of two other officers and the fact that they were allowed to resign rather than face any charges.
The letter detailed concerns about Cook’s drinking and driving, and the public perception of this behavior. He noted that there were people working other jobs while on the clock for the police department and that he felt the department was falling well short of its potential. Medlin wrote that he would like to see the department restored to the place it had been but that it would take a lot of work and someone with the right mindset and moral character.
“Did you have a chance to talk to Bralley about the letter,” Elliot asked.
“I did. We talked and she took notes.”
“Did she ever follow up with you on what she did?” the attorney asked.
“No,” Medlin replied.
“Did you have any interaction with Chief Cook after that?”
Medlin replied that he later received a memo dated Aug. 6 from Cook stating that he (Medlin) was to close or hand off any remaining cases by Aug. 10 as he was going back to patrol. “When I asked the chief why this was happening, he said I wasn’t the officer I used to be and I was asking people to do things for me.”
Medlin filed a grievance, at which point he was informed by Cook that this wasn’t a demotion, but rather a transfer.
“I showed him the letter I received when I moved to detective. It was listed as a promotion. I definitely saw this (move back to patrol) as a demotion. I saw it as retaliation for my letter to the town manager.”
Subsequently, Bralley intervened, and Medlin was reinstated as a detective.
Also entered into evidence was Medlin’s personnel file. Asked if there was anything in the file of a disciplinary nature, his response was “No, there was never anything about any deficiencies.”
Judge Thomas Schroeder ended the day at 5:30 and Medlin was to be back on the stand the following day (Tuesday). The plaintiff’s anticipate between 18 and 25 witnesses, including experts in the area of economics, police procedure and psychology.
The defense indicated they plan to call some 10 witnesses.