BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — Nearly five years after Bald Head Island fired five public safety officers, a lawsuit involving four of the men is nearing an end.
Herbie Bryant, Thomas Cannon, Jesse Conner, Donald Koons and Nicholas Terrell sued the Village of Bald Head Island, former Village Manager Calvin Peck and former Public Safety Director Caroline Mitchell over their August 2014 firings.
Federal court records show Bryant dismissed his suit last year after reaching a settlement. But the lawsuit involving the other four men continues and has gone as far as the US Court of Appeals.
A court filing shows their case is now scheduled for a non-binding, non-jury summary trial before a federal judge in Wilmington starting August 12.
Bradley Coxe, an attorney for the men, says they have been in settlement negotiations, but that the parties remain far apart. Coxe says the summary trial is intended to “break up a logjam.” He says both sides will have four hours to put on evidence, then the judge will make a recommendation on damages or a range of damages in hopes of the plaintiffs and defendants eventually reaching a resolution.
Norwood Blanchard, an attorney for the defendants in the case, says the summary trial will give both sides an idea of what more reasonable expectations may be based on the judge’s opinions. Blanchard says at this point there are significant differences between the sides about some of the facts of the case.
The attorneys say if they cannot negotiate an agreement after the summary trial, the case will head to a full trial this fall.
The lawsuit stems from the Village of Bald Head Island firing the men because of a group text conversation, in which they complained about issues including Mitchell and training for members of the department, who are supposed to be cross-trained and certified to handle duties including law enforcement, firefighting, EMS and water rescue. Village leaders deemed some of the texts inappropriate, including one that appeared to be in reference to Mitchell’s sexual orientation, according to court records.
According to their termination letters obtained by WWAY the day after their firings, Koons, Terrell, Cannon and Bryant were fired for violating policies related to harassment and sexual harassment, discourteous treatment of coworkers and inappropriate electronic communications. Conner was fired for cause for discourteous treatment and inappropriate electronic communications. But the men have argued the release of the information in the termination letters and in an email Peck sent to other village employees, as well as affidavits filed with the NC Criminal Justice Education and Training Standards Commission was inaccurate and has hurt their ability to get jobs.
Coxe says Cannon took early retirement, Koons got a job with the Shallotte Police Department, while Conner and Terrell landed full-time positions with Oak Island.
According to court records, Peck testified “[The Officers] were terminated because they were jerks… [T]hey were disrespectful… of the chain of command.” Mitchell testified that she recommended terminating the officers solely because she did not “want [the Officers] to be part of our [Department’s] team.”
Attorneys say the men’s remaining claims are for wrongful discharge against the village, defamation against the village, Peck and Mitchell and violation in liberty interest against Peck and Mitchell.
Both Coxe and Blanchard say they are hopeful the summary trial can help everyone reach common ground on a settlement to the case.