Mocksville Town Manager Christine Bralley is liable for the wrongful firings of three police officers in 2011, a move that came just two weeks after the officers reported allegations of police corruption to state officials, a federal judge has ruled.
U.S. District Judge Thomas D. Schroeder made the ruling Friday, about three months after a jury awarded a total of $4.1 million in damages to the three officers — Maj. Ken Hunter, Lt. Rick Donathan and Detective Jerry Medlin. Schroeder’s ruling also reduced the amount of damages to $1.8 million. He determined that the officers were not entitled to as much front pay, or future lost earnings.
Cook, who retired in 2013, and Bralley are each liable for punitive damages of $30,000 — $10,000 for each of the three officers. Schroeder will issue a final judgment at a later date.
Schroeder also decided that reinstating the officers to their former positions at the Mocksville Police Department would not be feasible. Town officials opposed the reinstatements, saying the police department had no available positions. They also said that the lawsuit had created animosity between the officers and in the police department and town government.
The officers’ attorneys argued that reinstatement would not work as long as Bralley remained town manager.
Allegations of corruption
Hunter, Donathan and Medlin used a disposable TracFone to call the N.C. Attorney General’s Office and the N.C. Office of the Governor on Dec. 14, 2011, according to testimony during an eight-day trial in U.S. District Court in Winston-Salem in May.
The officers alleged that Cook drank excessively while on-duty and that he and then-deputy chief Daniel Matthews mismanaged the department’s money. They also alleged racial discrimination; Hunter was one of two black officers at the Mocksville Police Department.
The officers also said Cook ignored the misconduct of other officers.
Two weeks later, Cook fired all three police officers in one day, the first time he had fired any officer during his eight-year term as police chief. Just two days before the terminations, Bralley contacted Sprint, the town’s cellphone provider. Bralley testified that her calls to Sprint were part of a six-month review of cellphone calls to see whether officers were making too many personal calls on their town-issued cellphones.
But Schroeder said in his ruling that it’s reasonable that the jury rejected Bralley’s explanation, given everything else that happened between the officers contacting state officials and their firings.
Officials in the governor’s office contacted the State Bureau of Investigation, which assigned SBI Special Agent D.J. Smith to the case. Smith worked in Mocksville and he immediately went to Mocksville Police Department with a slip of paper that had the number of the disposable phone that the officers used. Smith contacted Davie County Sheriff’s deputy Christopher Shusky and Nelson Turrentine, a Mocksville police detective, to help him. They were eventually able to link the phone to Hunter.
Turrentine testified that if he knew he had a phone number connected to allegations of corruption at the Mocksville Police Department, he would have told Cook, Schroeder said in his ruling.
Bralley knew about call
Donathan and Medlin inadvertently used their town-issued cell phones to call the TracFone, and according to Schroeder’s ruling, evidence suggested that Bralley called Sprint six times in an effort to link the TracFone to Donathan and Medlin.
Bralley was also Cook’s direct supervisor and was in a position to approve or stop the officers’ firings, Schroeder said. He also said there was strong circumstantial evidence that Cook fired the officers in retaliation. Cook testified that he had not fired any other officers, despite having one officer pull a gun on people while in the department’s parking lot. That same officer, in a separate incident, came to work drunk and hit a parked car with his patrol vehicle. The officer was allowed to resign.
Cook also called Davie County District Attorney Garry Frank the day after the firings, saying that he couldn’t have “people constantly undercutting you and causing problems.”
“Accordingly, 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 Plaintiffs’ call to the governor’s office and would not have terminated Plaintiffs but for it,” Schroeder wrote.
Bralley did not return a message Monday seeking comment. Patrick Flanagan, one of the attorneys who represented the defendants, also could not be reached for comment Monday.
Robert Elliot, one of the attorneys for the officers, said he was glad to see Schroeder uphold the jury’s verdict on Bralley.
“We contend that the town of Mocksville should not have an individual who is supervising and making decisions for all of its employees who violated the constitutional rights of my clients,” he said. “She shouldn’t be town manager.”
He said he is disappointed in the reduction of the officers’ total award based on front paybut he understands it. The most important thing is that Schroeder concluded that the officers now have a better chance of getting employment due to the jury’s verdict that they were wrongfully terminated, he said.
“In the final analysis, they did everything they should do,” Elliot said.
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