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Durham v. Jones, No. 12-2303

Decided: December 10, 2013

The Fourth Circuit held that the United States District Court for the District of Maryland did not err by denying Sheriff Robert N. Jones’s (Jones) motion for judgment as a matter of law under Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 50(b), in which Jones claimed qualified immunity from a suit brought by James Durham (Durham).  The Fourth Circuit therefore affirmed the judgment of the district court.

Durham, who was employed as a deputy sheriff in Somerset County, Maryland Sheriff’s Office (SCSO), used physical force and pepper spray to detain a suspect while assisting a Maryland state trooper on August 21, 2008.  After Durham prepared his incident report, multiple SCSO officials tried to force Durham to alter his report and to charge the suspect with assaulting him and resisting arrest.  Though Durham did not think it was proper to alter his report, and though he believed he had no basis to charge the suspect, the SCSO officials used various threats and interrogation techniques to convince Durham to comply.  Durham eventually filed an internal grievance and requested an outside investigation.  The day Durham filed the grievance, Jones demoted him from Deputy First Class to Deputy.  Durham was subsequently suspended with pay until further investigation could be made.  After Durham learned that the subjects of his grievance were also the officials who would investigate the grievance, Durham sent documents detailing his experiences to, inter alia, the Somerset County State’s Attorney, the Governor of Maryland, the Maryland State Police, and various media outlets.  Durham continued to send materials to various officials until Jones issued a “gag order” on September 28, 2008.

In May 2009, Durham was departmentally charged under the Law Enforcement Officers’ Bill of Rights (the LEOBR) with, inter alia, dissemination of departmental information.  In July 2009, the LEOBR Trial Board acquitted Durham of all charges except those relating to dissemination of departmental information; the Trial Board recommended a ten-day suspension as punishment.  However, Jones subsequently informed Durham that he was considering increasing the sanction.  After Durham appeared before Jones for a penalty hearing on September 16, 2009, Durham received notice of his termination.

Durham sued Jones under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, contending that Jones terminated him in retaliation for exercising his First Amendment free speech rights.  The district court denied Jones’s Rule 12(b)(6) motion to dismiss on the basis of qualified immunity; the court subsequently denied Jones’s motions for judgment as a matter of law under Rule 50(a) and Rule 50(b), in which Jones also asserted qualified immunity.  The jury found in Durham’s favor and awarded him $1,112,200 in damages.  Jones appealed, arguing that he did not violate Durham’s First Amendment rights—and that, even if he did violate Durham’s First Amendment rights, these rights were not clearly established.

The Fourth Circuit found that Durham’s speech pertained to a matter of public concern, rejecting the argument that Durham was simply making an internal grievance.  The court also found that the SCSO’s interest in preserving an effective law enforcement agency did not outweigh Durham’s First Amendment rights, noting the seriousness of the underlying matter of public concern and the fact that Jones was unable “to show at trial how Durham’s actions had an adverse impact on the proper functioning of the SCSO in some serious manner.” The Fourth Circuit therefore concluded that Jones violated Durham’s free speech rights under the First Amendment.  Furthermore, the Fourth Circuit found that Durham’s free speech rights were clearly established in September 2009, noting that the court “[has] been clear that where public employees are speaking out on government misconduct, their speech warrants protection.”

Full Opinion

– Stephen Sutherland