Fired officers awarded $4.1 million
Published 9:47 am Thursday, May 19, 2016
By Lynn Hall
That was the reaction of Attorney Robert Elliot last week after a seven-member jury found in favor of his clients – three former Mocksville police officers.
The officers, Ken Hunter, Jerry Medlin and Rick Donathan, had been fired in December of 2011 after they made an anonymous phone call to the governor’s office with allegations of corruption against Police Chief Robert Cook.
It was the plaintiff’s contention that Cook and Town Manager Christine Bralley became aware of the phone call and as a result terminated all three officers in violation of their rights to free speech.
The defendants filed suit in 2012 against Cook and Bralley under the 1st Amendment and the Town of Mocksville under the state constitution.
After eight days of testimony, the jury took a little over two hours to reach their verdict and award compensatory damages to the plaintiffs. The compensatory awards covered back wages from termination until the present, as well as future pay (based on work life expectancy).
That will amount to approximately $l.2 million for Hunter, $1.1 million for Medlin, and $1.6 million for Donathan.
The jury also awarded punitive damages of $10,000 to be paid by both Cook and Bralley to each officer.
Hunter was awarded $805,706 in back pay and $388,125 in future pay as he was closest to retirement age.
Medlin’s back pay amounted to $288,293 and front pay was $857,403.
Donathan’s back pay total was $310,830 and front or future pay was $1,353,585.
Mocksville Town Manager Bralley showed no reaction to the verdict and her co-defendant, Cook, left the courthouse prior to the jury’s return.
Outside of the federal courthouse in Winston-Salem last Wednesday evening, Robert Elliot said his clients had waited a long time – “four and a half years for justice and they received it today.”
Hunter said he was pleased that the ordeal was over, and he, Medlin and Donathan wanted to thank all of those friends in the community who never stopped believing in and supporting them.
“There were a lot of people on our side,” Medlin agreed. “The community was very supportive throughout this process.”
“They never gave up on us,” Donathan added, “and we never gave up on them, either.”
In a press conference the following day, Robert Elliot said they will be filing a petition for reinstatement within the next few weeks.
“From the outset, we had two objectives,” Elliot said. “To get justice for these guys and to do our part and theirs to see this kind of thing doesn’t happen again.”
He said he met the former officers shortly after their termination and believed in them from the outset. “We thought the process would take a year and here we are four and a half years later.”
Elliot called the Mocksville Police Department under the leadership of Robert Cook a “closed department, with the kind of management that had caused the problems these courageous officers were trying to fix.” He said, “we wanted to send a message as far as it could reach with as much emphasis as it could have to try and make people realize that the government is for the people; the police department is for the people and not just a few leaders or managers who use it for their own benefit.”
That was the goal, he said, adding that they appreciated that the jury saw that objective and delivered vindication.
Co-counsel Michael Elliot said while there has been a lot of negativity in the media about police officers, they were happy to shine a positive light on the profession.
“Make no mistake, these men are the best of the best,” he said.
The three former officers were expansive in their gratitude to their attorneys for their hard work, but also expressed thanks to their families and many people in Davie County who were supportive throughout the ordeal.
All three officers said what they wanted now was to get back to work.
“We were public servants in Mocksville and we still have a passion for law enforcement,” Ken Hunter said. “The community was supportive. That’s the kind of community we have in Mocksville and that’s the kind of community we are looking forward to going back to work for.”
They were asked about any concerns about returning to a department where there are still officers who they had issues with in the past and who had testified in court.
Robert Elliot and all three officers said there had been many in the department who were aligned with them, but who had not been in a position to be overtly supportive. “We can’t thank them enough.”
Medlin said he didn’t feel any resentment about what had happened. He said it had been a long and painful ordeal, but that the end result was what they hoped.
“We started the process because we knew there were issues within the department – we saw it on a daily basis – and the department’s reputation, as well as our own were taking a hit.”
He said he does not know the new police chief (Todd Penley) but looks forward to meeting him.
Robert Elliot said it would be up to the trial judge to determine if reinstatement would take place.
“But we’re ready to go back to work,” Donathan said. “We want to serve the community we love.”
Hunter who had been in law enforcement for 27 years when he was terminated, was within three years of reaching the 30-year retirement age set by the Town of Mocksville.
“I do want to get my 30 years in, but I also want to be able to stay until I’m ready to walk out the door,” Hunter said.
A significant portion of the testimony over the eight days of the trial dealt with the impact of a termination, especially on individuals who feel law enforcement is a “calling.”
The officers, often finding it difficult to speak, testified to the trauma of losing a career they loved. Their wives, and in the case of Hunter his daughter, talked about the hardships and the changes these three men had experienced.
Donathan gave thanks to “the good Lord. He wasn’t just there for us yesterday (when the verdict was returned), but He’s been with us thoughout all of this.”
Medlin said, “The saying is that God doesn’t put more on you than you can handle, so I guess He thinks I’m pretty stout.”
Both plaintiffs’ attorneys often referred to the fact that these were “extraordinary and decorated police officers with unblemished records, who had been doing what they thought was right and taking what they felt was their only remaining option.”
That option was to seek outside help in getting an investigation into the department, Robert Elliot noted.
He stressed that the only investigation that Cook and Bralley had ever undertaken was to find out who made the call to the governor’s office. He said there was an extensive investigation launched by the department after the termination in regards to accusations that Medlin had taken two laptops.
“He absolutely did not take a department laptop and the second computer did not belong to the department,” Elliot said. He continued, saying that the SBI was called in and when Medlin was interviewed by agents, it was determined there was no basis for these allegations.”
In his closing statement, Michael Elliot called them brave for being willing to risk their careers for the public good.
“The defendants (Cook and Bralley) knew about the call and this knowledge caused them to terminate the three officers,” Elliot told the jury. “These three men are not here by choice having to listen to a parade of witnesses trash their reputations.”
Elliot noted that the evidence was indicative of the fact that Cook had a pattern of behavior regarding anyone who questioned his authority. “The simple truth is that there were no other reasons for terminating the officers.”
He reminded the jury that SBI Agent Paula Carson testified that she received a call from the Raleigh office on Dec. 21 and was told of the call to the governor’s office in regard to allegations of corruption in the Mocksville Police Department. She then provided the number for the disposable cell phone and the information about the corruption allegations to Agent D.J. Smith, the SBI officer stationed in Davie County.
From there the information went to the Davie County Sheriff’s office in an effort to track down the caller. Chris Shuskey with the Davie Sheriff’s office then share the number with Nelson Turrentine at the Mocksville Police Department, who in turn provided the number to the department’s administrative assistant and another detective. This was all alleged to have happened in an effort to track down the anonymous caller.
Elliot said in his testimony, Shuskey had been forthcoming that he provided the number to Turrentine and said it was common knowledge in the community that someone had made allegations against Cook.
“He shared suspicious that Ken Hunter was involved based on tracing calls associated with that Tracfone,” Elliot said.
He reminded the jury that Turrentine was in the middle of all of this “but testified he could not remember much. He didn’t quite deny it,” Elliot noted, just that he couldn’t recall.
He also reminded the jury that Turrentine testified that if he had information about allegations being made, Chief Cook and Major Daniel Matthews would have expected him to report that to them.
As far as Bralley’s involvement, Michael Elliot said it was important to remember that the telephone records for December were in an invoice dated Dec. 27.
“It was normally a few days later before that bill was received by the Town of Mocksville,” Elliot said. “But we know that on Dec. 27, before she had the bill, she already knew of Medlin’s and Donathan’s phone calls to the Tracfone number. She testified that an assistant informed her that the detail on the cell phones of three other officers was missing. One of those phones being Hunter. That was the alleged reason for the calls made to Sprint.”
It was the plaintiff’s contention that Bralley already knew Medlin and Donathan were associated with the call to the governor’s office and the detail she was seeking was whether Hunter could also be tied to the phone.
Elliot referenced Cook’s written statement posted on the morning of Dec. 29 stating that “it was without joy,” he was terminating Hunter, Medlin and Donathan.
It went on to say that “any further rumors will be dealt with swiftly.”
That, Elliot pointed out the jury, was clearly a reference to the allegations that had been made in the call to the governor.
He also reminded them that while there had been testimony about other officers making serious complaints about Hunter, neither Bralley or Cook ever asked Hunter for his side. “They took the word of those who were complaining about their supervising officer, but never spoke to him,” Elliot stated.
“And look at the way the three men were fired,” he continued. “Medlin pulls into the parking lot and sees a locksmith’s van. Inside he finds his office door standing open and inside everything has been turned upside down. He’s escorted to Cook, who does not look at him, but stares out the window and then shoves the termination letter across the desk. When Medlin asked why he’s being terminated, Cook said he does have to tell him anything.”
The attorney insisted this was not the behavior of the man who had never fired anyone else despite evidence of serious misconduct, but instead someone acting in anger.
He referred to a memo detailing all of the complaints and issues Cook had with the three officers over the years and which he claimed had escalated by the end of 2011.
“But that memo was put together by Major Matthews after the fact … after the three officers were terminated,” the attorney said.
“These officers weren’t fired for being late or going out of town for lunch or turning in reports late,” Elliot told the jury. “They were fired because Cook and Bralley knew about that call.”
Robert Elliot also spoke to the jury prior to their retiring and said the courts had had a lot to say about whistleblowers over the years and their need to be protected.
“All cases are important, Robert Elliot said, “but this one is especially so because it is based on the 1st Amendment. If you send a loud message in your verdict that the 1st Amendment is alive and well, it will be heard far beyond this courtroom.”
In their closing arguments, the defense said the plaintiff’s case involved a conspiracy theory that would have involved many people, and that there was no evidence that either Cook or Bralley knew of that call. In rebuttal, Elliot said witnesses had provided that vital link to the two defendants.
“The only conspiracy here was to deny knowledge of the call.”
Elliot said just because Cook and Bralley said they didn’t know of the call, was not evidence that they didn’t know.
One of the plaintiffs concerns reported in the call to the governor’s office was that Cook was drinking while on duty and in uniform. Elliot reminded the jury that while others had denied knowing or hearing from anyone about a drinking problem, Bralley did testify that she had heard from a former police chief that he had seen Cook drinking on duty.
He reiterated that the Sprint phone records showing ties to Medlin and Donathan’s cell phones and the Tracfone number had come from Bralley, “and as was pointed out by my co-counsel, was in her hands before she had gotten the invoice in the mail.”
Elliot said the searches of the offices, the fact that Cook had the data off their cell phones downloaded (something never done before except from phones of criminals), the unwillingness to look the officers in the eye or verbally explain why he was terminating them spoke Cook’s anger.
“He was angry because he found out about the call.”
He said Cook and Matthews had shown a tendency and propensity to react badly to any criticizing of their authority.
Another example was Cook’s letter to Jeff Allen, head of the hunter education program for the school system, banning him from the Davie County Law Enforcement Association firing range after Allen wanted an accounting of funds from a fund-raiser while Matthews was treasurer.
A witness had been subpoenaed to bring all 2011 DCLEA meeting minutes. The November meeting was reference in the letter to Allen from Cook telling him he could no longer be on their property.
Cook’s letter stated that at that meeting, there had been a motion to ban Allen and the vote had been unanimous. No minutes from a November meeting were ever found.
Robert Elliot went over the damaged due the officers based on their loss of compensation and benefits since the terminations and pay that would be due them in the future if they had been allowed to continue at their jobs. This was based on the work of a Certified Public Accounting with experience in this type of financial evaluation.
He also reviewed the results of the psychological evaluations and testimony from both the former officers and family members. He asked the jury to render a verdict that would be heard and provide vindication.
“Let the bell ring out – much like the Liberty Bell – for the 1st Amendment and these extraordinary officers. Ring a bell that says they are going home as heroes,” Elliot stressed. “This will restore pride in the community and let people know that freedom of speech is more than a sign on the wall. Ring the bell so that no other government official will ignore the law like Robert Cook and Christine Bralley did.”
He concluded: “I think there could be a positive response from the town council in Mocksville to this verdict. Instead of fighting us anymore, what they can do is look inwardly and see what happened and set up some protections for people who come forward, That,” he said, “would be a great positive response.”
Michael Elliot said the outcome of the trial should also be viewed as not only beneficial to the plaintiffs, but also the town itself.
“Mocksville ought to be proud of these three men.”