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HARRIS v. WOOD

May 12, 1995

WILLIAM M. HARRIS, LARRY R. WHITE, Plaintiffs
v.
RONALD R. WOOD, Defendant.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: JAMES H. MICHAEL, JR.

 JUDGE JAMES H. MICHAEL, JR.

 On March 27-30, 1995, the court tried this section 1983 first amendment case involving an alleged politically motivated refusal to rehire two deputies of the Nelson County Sheriff's Office. The parties have submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law. Consequently, this court is now called upon to determine whether the victor in the 1991 Nelson County sheriff's race, Ronald Wood, refused to rehire the Plaintiffs due to the fact that they campaigned for his opponent, William Harris, the incumbent sheriff and the father of Plaintiff Michael Harris. For the reasons stated in the following findings of fact and conclusions of law, the court finds that the Plaintiffs failed to prove that Wood refused to rehire them solely on the basis of protected political speech, and therefore the court will enter judgment in favor of Wood.

 William "Bill" Harris had served Nelson County as sheriff for nearly twenty years in 1991, when he finally lost the sheriff's seat to Ronald Wood, after being defeated first in a Democratic primary, and then, running as an independent, in the general election. The Plaintiffs, Michael Harris and Larry White, campaigned actively for Bill Harris. Michael Harris spoke in favor of his father when asked for his opinion, produced a script and a radio ad for him, and passed around petitions to get his father on the ballot in the general election. Larry White also spoke in favor of Bill Harris and passed around petitions for Harris while on duty. When Bill Harris lost to Ronald Wood, Wood refused to rehire the Plaintiffs. Donnie Graves, Wood's right-hand man after the election, told Harris that Wood refused to reappoint him due to his unsuitable general background and reputation. (Graves Tr. 361; D.'s Ex. 4; M. Harris Tr. 90-91.) Graves informed White that Wood refused to rehire him because of some of the things that had been said in the campaign and because White did not live in Nelson County. (Graves Tr. 307; White Tr. 34-35.)

 The Plaintiffs believe that Wood retaliated against them for supporting his opponent and for criticizing Wood during the election campaign. White, indeed, launched a few verbal assaults on Wood, calling him a "bald-headed s.o.b." and a "chicken-shit," to others in the sheriff's department. (White Tr. 56-57.) There is no evidence, however, that White made these derogatory comments to the public at large. White did state to members of the public on occasion that Wood, when Wood served as a deputy, often failed to provide adequate back-up for his comrades in the field, and there is evidence that Wood was aware of these comments and objected to them. (White Tr. 26-27; Wood Tr. 597-98.) There is no evidence that Harris criticized Wood. Though others in the sheriff's office supported Sheriff Harris, including Gary Brantley, who wrote an editorial in the local paper on Harris's behalf, there is no question that the Plaintiffs were more active supporters of Harris's reelection bid. (Harris Tr. 131-132.) Among all of the deputies in the sheriff's department, including those who supported Sheriff Harris, and Leo Pugh, who ran as an independent against Wood, the Plaintiffs were the only deputies not rehired by Wood.

 Wood argues that he refused to rehire Harris principally because the community objected to Sheriff Harris hiring his son in the first place, and this was a major issue in the election. According to Sheriff Harris's chief deputy, Leo Pugh, Harris lost the sheriff's seat after so many years primarily due to the fact that he hired his son Michael, just as the sheriff in Amherst county suffered defeat after hiring his son a few years earlier. (Pugh Tr. 185, 201, 204.) Wood justifies his decision not to rehire Larry White because another issue in the campaign was White's behavior in the Gladstone area of the county. Though White performed ably as a sheriff, the department received complaints about his attitude, the fact that he drove too fast, and the fact that he used the county's car for too much personal business. (Graves Tr. 301-02.) Wood places great emphasis upon the fact that, under Virginia law, he is required to post a bond upon assuming the office of sheriff and is personally liable for the acts of his deputies, the safety of his deputies, and the safety of the general public. See Va. Code Ann. § 15.1-41 et seq. Due to the obligation imposed by the bond and the existence of respondeat superior liability, Wood argues, the court should place great weight on the complaints against White for speedy driving, the safety concerns presented by Harris's lack of full vision, and the court should defer to Wood's judgment about the fitness of the deputies he hires.

 The court heard much testimony, mostly speculation, rumor, and innuendo, about Michael Harris and Larry White. Turning first to Plaintiff Harris, he was hired by his father as a deputy dispatcher in 1990 and, eight months later, was promoted to the coveted post of road deputy. Though Michael Harris ultimately proved to be a satisfactory deputy, initially Sheriff Harris's colleagues felt that the appointment would inspire resentment due to the appearance of nepotism. (Pugh Tr. 185.) Appointing his son posed other problems for the sheriff beyond nepotism because Michael had developed a questionable reputation in Nelson County, a reputation perhaps unwarranted, stemming from his possible associations with others who were connected to drug use in the area. (Bowman Tr. 386; Kessner Tr. 369-70; Martin Tr. 460-61.) Various incidents from Michael Harris's past fueled the negative rumors about him. Most significantly, several years before becoming a deputy Harris had been involved in a late-night confrontation at the Trax bar in Charlottesville, where he pulled a gun to defend a friend, and in which an assailant shot at him seven times from behind, and hit him once in the head. He lost his right eye in the assault. Several of the deputies at the sheriff's office testified that they had responded to disturbances (loud parties mainly) where Harris had been involved as a youth, prior to his appointment as a deputy sheriff. (Graves Tr. 291; Kessner Tr. 368; Pugh Tr. 199.) Wood, basing his knowledge on second-hand rumor, believed Harris "liked to drink" and had violent outbursts. (Wood Tr. 562.) Harris "likes to give a little knuckle buster every once in a while," according to Wood. (Id.)

 Rumors and innuendo aside, everyone associated with the Nelson County Sheriff's Department testified that Michael Harris performed well as a deputy. Leo Pugh, who initially expressed concern over the appointment, was "surprised" at how well Harris turned out. (Pugh Tr. 186.) Harris did quite a bit of undercover drug work, worked long hours, and generally got along well with his colleagues. During his tenure as a deputy, however, rumors about Harris's personal life continued to plague him. On June 24, 1990, Michael Harris was charged with reckless driving in a manner to endanger the life and limb of another person. The incident involved a fight between Harris and his then-estranged wife, in which Harris allegedly attempted to run down his wife's friend. The incident became public knowledge when reported in the Nelson County Times. Though the charges were dropped when Harris and his wife reconciled, he received a three-day suspension and a thirty-day probationary period at the sheriff's office. (D.'s Ex. 6.)

 Larry White, while also a generally competent deputy, had his share of problems with the community and the sheriff's office. He did not talk much and often appeared to be in a bad mood, which, according to some deputies, made him difficult to work with. (Graves Tr. 301; Martin Tr. 454-55.) When White talked to the sheriff in Appomattox County about why Wood refused to rehire him, the sheriff told him that Wood said White was moody and would not talk to people at times. (White Tr. 632.) Moreover, White had been reprimanded twice by Sheriff Harris for complaints from Gladstone residents about White's speedy driving, and the sheriff's office received complaints from the sheriff of Appomattox County about White speeding through his domain. (Martin Tr. 458; Brooks Tr. 478; Phelps Tr. 425-26; Richardson Tr. 418-19.) White had been disciplined by the Nelson County Sheriff's Office on a few occasions for his lead-footed driving habits while not on emergency calls. (Brantley Tr. 221-22, 229; White Tr. 45-46; B. Harris Tr. 133, 134; Pugh Tr. 187-88.) Additionally, there was some amount of concern in the sheriff's office that White spent too much time at or near his home in Amherst County, or in Appomattox County where he worked part-time, and he often could not be reached by radio due to the relatively long distance from his home to the sheriff's office. (Brooks Tr. 476; Graves Tr. 357; Phelps Tr. 425; Wood Tr. 590.) According to several witnesses, White was sometimes rude to others in the community. (Brooks Tr. 478-79; Kessner Tr. 366; Goldstein Dep.)

 Though many of the stories about Harris and Wood evaporate upon exposure to light, the stories nevertheless formed a cloud over the deputies in the Nelson County community during the time preceding the sheriff's election. According to Deputy Martin, a dispatcher, neither of the Plaintiffs had the trust of the sheriff's constituency. (Martin Tr. 467.) Occasionally individuals in the community who called for a road deputy preferred not to speak to Michael Harris because they did not have confidence in him. (Martin Tr. 464.) The public sentiment against White, apparently, stemmed mainly from his attitude.

 After reviewing the evidence regarding the general nature of the Plaintiffs' reputations in the community, along with the various real and perceived problems with their performance, the court must determine whether these factors explain Defendant Wood's decision not to rehire them. The court will outline the first amendment retaliation analysis to be applied to these facts and then explain how the evidence supports the Defendant's claim that he based his decision not to rehire the Plaintiffs on legitimate non-discriminatory reasons.

 II. Conclusions of Law

 A.

 Though, under Virginia law, a sheriff's deputies serve at the will of the sheriff, Va. Code Ann. § 15.1-48, and have no property interest in continued employment, Jenkins v. Weatherholtz, 719 F. Supp. 468 (W.D. Va. 1989), a sheriff may not refuse to hire an individual in retaliation for constitutionally protected political expression. The standard to be applied in a first amendment retaliation case is set forth in Connick v. Myers, 461 U.S. 138, 75 L. Ed. 2d 708, 103 S. Ct. 1684 (1985). The court must look at all the facts and circumstances of a case to determine whether speech is of a matter of public concern and, if it is, whether the employee's first amendment interest outweighs the employer's interest in an efficient and harmonious workplace. Id. at 146.

 As the Supreme Court stated in Connick, "when employee expression cannot be fairly considered as relating to any matter of political, social, or other concern to the community, government officials should enjoy wide latitude in managing their offices, without intrusive oversight by the judiciary in the name of the First Amendment. Perhaps the government employer's dismissal of the worker may not be fair, but ordinary dismissals from government service which violate no fixed tenure or applicable statute or regulation are not subject to judicial review even if the reasons for the dismissal are alleged to be mistaken or unreasonable." Id. Even if employee speech is protected, "when close working relationships are essential to fulfilling public responsibilities, a wide degree of deference to the employers judgment is appropriate." Id. at 151. It is not necessary for the employer "to allow events to unfold to the extent that the disruption of the office and the destruction of working relationships is manifest before taking action." Id. at 152. If an employee's speech activity occurs at the office, rather than outside the office to the public at large, such circumstances may support an employer's defense that the functioning of the office was ...


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