United States District Court, W.D. Virginia, Abingdon Division
RANDALL E. BRICKEY, Plaintiff,
ROBB HALL, et al., Defendants.
GLEN E. CONRAD, Chief District Judge.
This case arises from Plaintiff Randall Brickey's termination from the Saltville Police Department ("SPD") following the publication of Brickey's responses to questions posed to him by local newspapers during his Town Council campaign. Brickey filed this civil action under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against several members of the SPD and the Saltville Town Council, alleging that his termination constituted a retaliatory discharge in violation of the First Amendment. The case is presently before the court on Defendants' motion for summary judgment. For the following reasons, Defendants' motion will be granted in part and denied in part.
Statement of Facts
The following facts from the summary judgment record are either undisputed, or, where disputed, are presented in the light most favorable to Brickey. See Anderson v. Liberty Lobby , 477 U.S. 242, 255 (1986) (stating that all evidence must be construed in the light most favorable to the party opposing summary judgment).
Brickey served as a SPD police officer from December 1, 2006 until May 21, 2012, when he was terminated. Defendant Hall became SPD Police Chief in July 2011. As Police Chief, Hall had "the authority to hire, fire and discipline police officers" after consultation with the Town Manager. Hall's Conditions of Hire, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 27, ECF 28-27.
Prior to Hall's arrival, the SPD struggled with a tarnished reputation in the Saltville community due to payroll miscalculations, officer misconduct, and a lack of professionalism. Hall implemented policy changes designed to improve SPD operations and image, including requiring officers to wear uniforms and protective vests, instituting a sleep policy, and encouraging increased foot patrols.
In early 2012, Brickey decided to run for an elected position on the Saltville Town Council. Brickey advised Police Chief Hall and Town Manager Michael Taylor of his political aspirations. Hall and Taylor agreed that Brickey's campaign would not create a conflict with his position as a police officer as long as he complied with SPD policies, including not campaigning in uniform and not disparaging the department.
During the campaign, two local newspapers, the Smyth County News & Messenger and the Saltville Progress, requested that Town Council candidates submit responses to a series of questions designed to elicit their campaign platforms. The newspapers published Brickey's responses to those questions on April 25 and 26.
In the articles, Brickey stated that he had been a police officer for 23 years and that he currently served as the Saltville D.A.R.E. officer. Then, in response to a question regarding his motivation for running for Town Council, Brickey stated:
I teach the D.A.R.E. program at Saltville Elementary School... I went in to talk to Chief Hall about ordering the supplies for the D.A.R.E. graduation. I was told there was no money to place the order. After checking with the accounts payable clerk to see where the $500 in the police department budget had been spent, I was shown several invoices that were charged to the D.A.R.E. account... [that] had nothing to do with the D.A.R.E. program... Seeing this, along with the other misuse of taxpayers' money, shows me that we have a very poor management at the council level and there needs to be a change. Saltville Progress Article, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 13, ECF No. 28-13; see also Smyth County News & Messenger Article, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 14, ECF No. 28-14 (same).
In response to a question asking Brickey to identify Saltville's greatest needs, Brickey stated in part that "[t]he town police department needs to be more professional. Officers need to do more foot patrols during the day shift and become more familiar with business owners. The police department needs to be more aggressive on investigations and focus more on drug trafficking." Id . When asked how he proposed to meet those needs, Brickey expanded on his ideas, stating that
I have been told by some business owners in town during my campaign for town council that they would like to see more foot patrols from the police department, and would like to see the chief during daytime hours. I have knowledge that there is a lot of drug trafficking in Saltville, and I am aware that we have cases that need to be investigated by the police department. We have a Chief of Police, an assistant chief, and four full-time officers and a part-time officer. There is no reason why we can't have a full-time investigator in the department. I propose that the town [put] the assistant chief back on patrol and take one of the full-time patrol officers and put them on investigations. At least we would have someone working on investigations full time that could possibly work on our drug problems. We had an investigator in our police department for over twenty years... There is no reason why we can't have an investigator now.
Id. In the articles, Brickey also stated that he believed that more money should be spent on road maintenance and paving, that the Town Council held too many closed meetings, that town departments needed to create and maintain balanced budgets, and that the town needed to provide water customers with longer periods of time to pay past due accounts and give notice to those customers before disconnecting services. Id.
Police Chief Hall felt "singled out" by Brickey's statements and believed that Brickey's published comments violated SPD policy. See Hall Decl. ¶ 25, Def.'s Mot. Summ. J. Ex. 1, ECF 28-1. On May 4, Hall gave Brickey written notice of his allegations that Brickey's statements violated several provisions of the SPD Policy Manual. Hall then hired Dr. Gary Reynolds, a former police chief from Winchester, Virginia, to investigate these allegations.
Meanwhile, on May 8, Hall briefed the Town Council in a closed meeting about the ongoing investigation into Brickey's alleged violations of SPD policy. Hall advised the Council that he had not decided what disciplinary action would be taken and that he would not make any decisions regarding discipline until after the investigation concluded. At the close of this meeting, the Council voted to support Hall's decision regarding potential discipline of Brickey, including his termination.
Dr. Reynolds met with several witnesses during his investigation, including Brickey, Hall, Assistant Police Chief Erik Puckett, all five of the town's other police officers, and the town's auditor. Reynolds asked each witness about Brickey's published statements and the impact of those statements on the SPD. At the conclusion of his investigation, Reynolds determined that Brickey's published statements violated SPD policy by "bad-mouthing" Hall, undermining the public's trust in Hall, and "sending a message that there were no drug investigations being conducted by the [SPD], ... ...