Judge implicates Bralley, Cook in officer firings

Published 8:47 am Thursday, August 18, 2016

A federal judge had some harsh words for Mocksville Town Manager Christine Bralley and former police chief, Robert Cook.

Judge Thomas D. Schroeder issued his conclusion on Friday.

A jury had already ruled in favor of three officers who filed a lawsuit for wrongful firing. Those officers – Ken Hunter, Rick Donathan and Jerry Medlin – were awarded some $4 million by the jury.

Schroeder’s ruling on Friday reduces that amount. It also means the officers will not be reinstated to their jobs with the department.

Bralley’s attorneys had filed a motion for judgment that was denied by Schroeder.

It awarded: Hunter $193,676 in front (future) pay and $805,706 in compensatory damages including back pay, Medlin $85,360 in front pay and $288,293 in compensatory damages, and Donathan $89,063 in front pay and $310,830 in compensatory damages.

The court is yet to determine amounts for retirement and supplemental separation allowance. Those numbers should be final within a week.

The officers were also awarded $10,000 each in punitive damages from Bralley and Cook.

The judge said the firings were retaliation for the officers reporting perceived wrongdoing within the department, including the chief being under the influence of alcohol while on duty, racial bias and financial improprieties.

Before those firings, Schroeder wrote, Cook had never fired an officer, even though evidence showed that one had been drinking on the job and involved in an accident and told to go home and not come back until sober. That same officer had pointed his weapon at someone for looking at him, then was allowed to resign.

The central question at trial was why they were fired. The officers claimed it was because they exercised their First Amendment rights. Cook and Bralley said the officers were fired for poor performance.

The jury believed the officers.

The officers had used a TracFone to contact the governor’s office alleging the corruption. The SBI sent an agent to the department to investigate, that included that phone number. It came back to a Hispanic female, who had been in a car that was stopped that also included a relative of Hunter.

That tied Hunter to the call to the governor’s office, Schroeder wrote. Donathan and Medlin had used department phones to call that number, and Bralley spent much of one day trying to get records of all town calls before the bill was mailed. Donathan and Medlin were fired soon thereafter.

Schroeder said it was a reasonable conclusion that Bralley knew about the call to the governor’s office prior to the firings. “The evidence showed that Bralley played a key role in obtaining these phone records just before the terminations.

“In light of the sequence of events and the forecast of evidence presented by plaintiffs, this court found that plaintiffs had offered sufficient evidence to support a jury finding that the town fired them for reporting to the governor’s office that the Mocksville Police Department was experiencing corruption and other issues,” Schroeder wrote.

As Cook’s immediate supervisor, Bralley had the authority to stop the firings or approve of them, he said. Two days before they were fired, Bralley had called Sprint six times to obtain the town’s phone billing statement early.

“While talking with the Sprint representative, Bralley did not provide a call back number and resisted providing the phone number on the account.” She finally got that statement early, Schroeder wrote.

Bralley claimed she needed the statement early because the town was in the midst of a six-month review of its cell phone plan.

“It (jury) inferred that her actions showed urgency to determine whether any officer (other than Hunter, who had already been implicated) was connected to the TracFone.

Cook, the order said, listed “been insubordinate” as grounds for firing Medlin and Donathan, and “rumored false deter mental {sic} information” for firing Hunter. The same day they were fired, Cook sent a memo to all officers that said “… further rumors will be dealt with swiftly.”

District Attorney Garry Frank said Cook called him the day after the firings, saying “you just can’t have people constantly undercutting you and causing problems.”

“The totality of the evidence presented at trial, viewed in the light most favorable to plaintiffs, was sufficient for a reasonable jury to find that Bralley knew of plaintiff’s call to the governor’s office and would not have terminated plaintiffs but for it.”

As to reinstating the officers to their jobs, Schroeder denied that request, saying it would be “inappropriate when the litigation itself created such animosity between the parties that any potential employer-employee relationship was irreparably damaged.” Another reason was that there were no similar jobs open, and someone would have to be fired.

Bralley is still the town manager, which Schroeder called the “greatest obstacle to reinstatement.” Even the officers and their attorneys agreed that reinstatement could be difficult if Bralley remained as town manager.

“The court is not aware of any authority to require the town to terminate Bralley, and given her position as town manager, this court is unaware of any town position that is not in her chain of command.”

The front pay, or pay the officers could receive in the future, is the most difficult to determine, the judge wrote. His conclusion included mostly exemplary reports on the officers, and details of their applications for similar jobs. Donathan had recently been promoted, and suffered anxiety and depression after the firing.