BRUNSWICK COUNTY, NC (WWAY) — A federal judge has sided with four former Bald Head Island Public Safety Officers who filed a lawsuit after they were fired six years ago.
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.
Bryant previously reached a settlement and dismissed his lawsuit, but Cannon, Conner, Koons and Terrell’s case went to trial in September.
In the lawsuit, the plaintiffs alleged a violation of the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, liber per se, libel per quod, wrongful discharge, and breach of contract.
The lawsuit stems from the Village of Bald Head Island firing the men because of a group text conversation, sent when they were off-duty, 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.
Mitchell learned about the texts while meeting with another officer about an unrelated incident. The officer showed Mitchell a text message about an officer’s promotion to lieutenant because he did not think that she was fit for the duties of the position and was expressing his concern, along with everybody else’s.
The IT director then retrieved the text message chains from the cell phone. Mitchell then met with her command staff and discussed the termination of the plaintiffs based upon text messages. One member of her staff was opposed to their termination, believing the plaintiffs did not break the Personnel Policy.
Mitchell then brought the matter to Peck, telling him the texts came to her attention when one of the employees complained about them. However, that employee had told Mitchell he was not complaining about the texts.
Peck, based on the recommendation of Mitchell, fired the officers.
The officers’ termination letters found them in violation of sexual harassment, harassment, and inappropriate electronic communications.
During the September trial, the court found by a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ that both Peck and Mitchell deprived each of the plaintiffs of their liberty interest in violation of the 14th Amendment of the United States Constitution.
The court also concluded that the charges in the termination letters placed a stigma on the reputation of each plaintiff, were made public the day after the terminations, and were false, as the reasons for termination in the letters contradicted Peck’s testimony of her reasons for termination and also contradicted the definitions of the Village Personnel Policy.
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.
Cannon took early retirement and then became a reserve officer in Sparta, Koons got a job with the Shallotte Police Department, while Conner and Terrell landed full-time positions with Oak Island.
The court ruled that Peck terminated the plaintiffs because he believed they were jerks and disrespectful of the chain of command, not for the reasons state in their termination letters.
The court also found that Peck committed libel against Cannon, Koons, and Terrell by publishing termination letters which contained defamatory statements that were false and that Peck ‘acted with actual malice’.
The court ruled Mitchell also acted with malice. According to documents, no one complained about the text messages to her and since she was the person to whom the alleged complaint was made, she knew it was false.
The wrongful discharge claims, breach of contract claims and liber per se claims against the Village of Bald Head Island were dismissed.
Because of the stigma and lost wages surrounding the officers, the court awarded compensatory and punitive damages to each of the officers, ranging between $146,00 and $192,00, for a total of $707,001 from Defendants Peck and Mitchell.
WWAY has reached out the Village of Bald Head Island for comment. They responded with the following statement:
“The Village of Bald Head Island has received and is reviewing the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.C. in a case arising from the termination of four Public Safety Officers. The Village will consider whether any additional legal filing or appeal is necessary and proper. It is important to the Village that employment and termination of employment be handled properly and it will continue to endeavor to do so.”