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1. Immunity_sheriff and deputy_official capacities_wrongful discharge
Summary judgment was correctly granted for a sheriff and chief deputy in their official
capacities on a wrongful discharge suit. Sovereign immunity bars actions against public officials
in their official capacities, sheriffs and deputies are considered public officials, and the county's
insurance fund included an exception for law enforcement employees bringing claims against
2. Immunity_sheriff_ individual capacity--wrongful discharge
Sovereign immunity did not bar a claim for wrongful discharge in violation of public
policy against a sheriff in his individual capacity. Sovereign immunity does not shield
individuals from personal liability for actions which may have been corrupt, malicious, or
outside the scope of official duties, and plaintiff provided evidence which could support his
claim in that he provided an informant for an FBI investigation of mismanagement of marijuana
by the sheriff's department.
McSURELY & OSMENT, by Ashley Osment and Alan McSurely for
WOMBLE CARLYLE SANDRIDGE & RICE, by Mark A. Davis for defendant appellee.
Dan Phillips (plaintiff) appeals the trial court's order of summary judgment in favor of defendants Sheriff Ike Gray (Sheriff Gray) and Randy Keck (Keck) (collectively as defendants). For the reasons stated herein, we affirm the decision of the trial court to grant summary judgment for plaintiff's claims against defendants in their official capacities and plaintiff's free speechclaim. We, however, reverse and remand the trial court's grant of summary judgment for plaintiff's claim against defendant Sheriff Gray in his individual capacity.
The record tended to show that plaintiff was a School Resource Officer (SRO) with the Chatham County Sheriff's Department. Defendants are the sheriff (Gray) and chief deputy sheriff (Keck) of Chatham County.
Plaintiff acted as the SRO for Chatham Central High School (CCHS) for the majority of the time pertinent to this appeal. While serving as the SRO, plaintiff witnessed a racially hostile environment at CCHS perpetuated by students and school administrators. Plaintiff made multiple attempts to discuss the hostile environment with his then supervisor, Sheriff Don Whitt (Sheriff Whitt). Sheriff Whitt informed plaintiff that he did not want to hear a damn thing [plaintiff had] to say about the school.
The following summer, an unknown person left an audiocassette in the mailbox of the Chatham County Board of Commissioners Chair Richard Givens. The tape contained a conversation between the principal of CCHS, William Fowler (Fowler), and an unknown person. During said conversation, Fowler made several racial slurs. Fowler subsequently resigned as principal of CCHS.
Plaintiff's wife, Dorthy Ritter Phillips (Mrs. Phillips), is the principal of a local elementary school. In her affidavit for the court, Mrs. Phillips stated that a colleague of hers informed her that Fowler and Sheriff Whitt had made a deal to take care of the one who had made the tape and that plaintiff would not be re-sworn as a deputy when the new sheriff, Sheriff Gray, took office.
A few months later, plaintiff was informed that marijuana was stolen from a landfill used by the Chatham County Sheriff's Department to destroy and/or hold marijuana in the County's possession. The informant explained to plaintiff that he attempted to provide Keck with this information, but Keck cursed him. Plaintiff met with the informant and agents from the FBI and the U.S. Customs. Sheriff Whitt asserted in his affidavit that he had contacted the FBI about the missing marijuana.
Sheriff Whitt retired as sheriff of Chatham County on 30 November 2001. Sheriff Gray was sworn in as sheriff and plaintiff was re-sworn as a deputy. Shortly thereafter, Sheriff Gray informed Keck that there was an Internal Affairs investigation of plaintiff.
Robert Lefler, an officer employed by the Division of Motor Vehicles Law Enforcement and the officer who arranged the meeting with the FBI and U.S. Customs, received a call from a U.S. Customs agent asking Lefler to give plaintiff a heads up that Keck planned to fire him. In mid-January 2001, Keck asked plaintiff to take a polygraph exam regarding the audiotape of Fowler. In Keck's affidavit, he stated that plaintiff became enraged when asked to take a polygraph. Keck further stated that plaintiff thereafter threatened to sue him. In plaintiff's affidavit, plaintiff asserts that he was willing to take the polygraph as long as standard operating procedure was followed and his accuser was also required to submit to a polygraph.
Deputy Seagroves, plaintiff's successor as SRO at CCHS,asserts in his affidavit that Keck also asked him to take a polygraph. Deputy Seagroves informed Keck that he would submit to a polygraph if standard operating procedure was followed. Neither plaintiff nor Deputy Seagroves took a polygraph test.
The next day Sheriff Gray discharged plaintiff. Plaintiff brought a wrongful discharge claim against Sheriff Gray and Keck in their official capacities and against Sheriff Gray in his individual capacity. The trial court granted defendants' motion for summary judgment and dismissed all claims against defendants with prejudice.
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