A U.S. district court judge dismissed a lawsuit against Washington County Sheriff Mike Robinson after a federal appeals court ruled he was protected from civil liability in the firing of a deputy who unsuccessfully challenged him for election in 2014.
On July 26, Judge Joseph F. Bataillon dismissed the lawsuit filed by Don Morgan of Kennard after the U.S. Court of Appeals 8th Circuit reversed the ruling that denied Robinson's motion for summary judgement in March. Bataillon also dismissed a claim against Washington County.
Robinson terminated Morgan on May 19, 2014, after he won re-election May 13. Robinson claimed Morgan publicly lied about policies and programs of the sheriff's office during the course of his campaign.
In the lawsuit, Morgan said the firing violated his First Amendment right to free speech. An arbitrator ruled May 10, 2015, that Morgan be reinstated to his job. He was sworn in and returned to duty June 3, 2015. He has since been promoted to sergeant.
In its March ruling, the appeals court said Robinson could claim qualified immunity, which shields officials from civil liability in actions when their conduct “does not violate clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.”
The court cited a North Dakota case, Nord v. Walsh, which was decided in June 2014 — one month after Robinson fired Morgan.
In that case, a deputy sheriff in Walsh County, N.D., ran against his current boss. During the campaign, he made comments critical of the sheriff. The sheriff won re-election and the next day, after consulting the county attorney and human resources consultant, fired the deputy.
The deputy sued, citing violations of the First and 14th amendments. The district court denied the sheriff's motion for summary judgement before it was reversed by the same federal appeals court, which heard Robinson's case. The court found the sheriff was entitled to qualified immunity.
The appeals court noted the similarity in the cases. It also recognized two distinctions between the cases, “but neither warrants a different outcome.”
One is the speech at issue. In the North Dakota case, the speech focused on the sheriff, including his poor health, his wife did not want him to run and he planned to resign.
In Washington County, the speech focused on the county and the sheriff's office.
During the campaign, Morgan said the county communications center had not been completed, rural fire departments lacked adequate radio systems, the county needed more deputies on the road, the office budget did not consider the public's needs, morale was poor, the department was not doing well and people were leaving because they were not respected.
Morgan argued the difference “render(s) Nord irrelevant for purposes of determining whether the law was clearly established in this case.” Specifically, he contended Nord was inapplicable because the speech there was untruthful.
Another difference, the court said, was the impact of the speech. In the North Dakota case, there was no evidence of disruption or potential disruption.
However, in Washington County, Robinson testified he believed Morgan's statements were detrimental to the office, harmful to morale and adversely impacted the public's trust of the office.
Deputies expressed similar concerns.
Morgan argued that Robinson had not proven any disruption and should have known that firing him would violate a clearly established right.
But the court found the termination letter and testimony from Robinson and command staff about the effects of Morgan's statements were evidence of “actual disruption” and “demonstrated impact.”
“Even without this evidence, however, Robinson could claim qualified immunity,” the court wrote. “As the Supreme Court has said, there is no 'necessity for an 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.'”
Robinson's attorney, Charles Campbell of York was pleased with the ruling.
“It's taken a long time to get to this point,” Campbell said. “I'm sure he's relieved and it's good that the county can put this behind the county as well.”
Morgan's attorney, Thomas White of Omaha, did not return a message from the Enterprise seeking comment.