Fired officer to get his job back

Published 10:10 am Thursday, March 2, 2017

A federal judge last week ruled that one of three fired Mocksville Police Department officers should get his job back.

The same judge ordered that awards should not exceed $1 million total, the amount of liability insurance coverage the town holds.

District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder did not rule as to whether each of the officers be paid $10,000 each by former police chief, Robert Cook, and former town manager, Christine Bralley.

Ken Hunter, Jerry Medlin and Rick Donathan sued the town, Cook and Bralley for wrongful firing after they reported to the governor’s office perceived wrongdoings in the police department.

The judge ordered the town to hire Donathan back as a lieutenant when such a job becomes available.

Hunter was at retirement age, and Medlin, Schroeder concluded, had made disparaging remarks about the police department on social media that could make re-hiring him a burden on the department. He also noted that Medlin was no longer a certified police officer.

Schroeder wrote that Medlin and Donathan were both promoted to lieutenant just prior to their firing.

The current police chief, Todd Penley, had said that hiring any of the officers back could “result in hostility and antagonism within” the department, and that antagonism could “jeopardize public safety.”

Medlin, Schroeder wrote, put on social media that Mocksville was a crooked town, including expletives. Medlin also questioned on social media the police department’s handling of an active investigation.

“The court accepts the town’s statement that trust within a law enforcement department is serious,” Schroeder wrote.

Donathan is a “decorated officer,” earning a national award after helping save elderly residents from a nursing home fire, earning him officer of the year award twice, the judge said.

The town had mainly said that Donathan was fired for distractions from a separate business he operated. Schroeder said the jury rejected that conclusion, and there is no evidence Donathan still operates that business.

Also, the town showed no evidence of animosity toward Donathan. Penley, after the trial, told Donathan he had no pre-conceived notions about him and was willing to talk.

“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 at the time of the events leading to his termination.”

The court ordered that Donathan be re-instated as lieutenant as soon as such a job becomes available. In the meantime, he will be paid $9,405 a month, or until the front pay of $197,523 he was awarded has been spent.

Schroeder wrote several pages as to whether the town would have to pay more than the $1 million in liability insurance coverage. The officers claimed the $1 million limit should be applied to each officer; the town and insurance provider asked that the total amount be limited to $1 million.

The jury, Schroeder said, concluded that Bralley and Cook fired the officers because they learned they had been involved in calling the governor’s office about wrongdoings. Evidence supported that conclusion, he said.

“On the day before plaintiffs (officers) were fired, Bralley and Cook met with the town’s attorney (Hank Van Hoy) to discuss the prospect of firing plaintiffs and to review the letters of termination. All three were fired on the same day within hours of each other.” Cook, the judge noted, had never fired an officer prior to that day, even though evidence was presented at trial that other officers had acted in ways that would have warranted termination.

“The only conclusion that can be drawn from the evidence is that the jury determined that plaintiff’s terminations were … upon the urging of Bralley and Cook, who viewed their call to the governor as insubordinate.”

Schroeder issued his ruling last Tuesday.