Both federal and state laws protect an employee’s right to refuse to participate in unethical or illegal behavior. Furthermore, the laws prohibit an employer from retaliating against an employee who refuses to engage in questionable practices or reports any such practices. An employer may not threaten, discipline, demote, terminate, or otherwise treat an employee in a negative manner for any legally protected activities.
Deputy Fired for Reporting Police Cover Up
20 year-old James Durham worked as a sheriff deputy in Somerset County, Maryland, and he assisted with the apprehension and arrest of a motorcyclist following a high-speed chase. Police used physical force and pepper spray to subdue the motorcyclist, actions which Durham included in his thorough incident report. After the arrestee went to the hospital for injuries allegedly sustained during the arrest, higher-ranked officers instructed Durham to remove the references to police force from his report because they feared a possible lawsuit. When Durham initially refused to alter his report, officers interrogated him, threatened to suspend him, and even threatened to arrest him for assaulting the motorcyclist as an additional cover up. Durham changed his report to avoid arrest, however days later he filed an internal grievance regarding the situation.
Instead of following up on Durham’s claims, the Sheriff’s Department immediately demoted Durham. Sheriffs later started an investigation into Durham’s conduct during the arrest of the motorcyclist, during which he was suspended without pay. The investigation was to be conducted by the officers against whom the grievance was filed and who were out to avoid liability. To protect himself, the deputy alerted the state police, state officials, and several media outlets about the details of the initial arrest, as well as all of the officers’ actions following the arrest. The Sheriff’s Department then terminated the deputy, claiming he violated 12 rules and undermined the Sheriff, and Durham then filed a lawsuit for the violation of his constitutional rights to free speech and for unlawful retaliation.
Deputy Awarded $1.1 Million
At trial in federal district court, the Sheriff’s Department officers claimed they had a legitimate reason to terminate Durham because he released internal information to the media and public. However, the jury found in favor of Durham and awarded him $1,112,200. The Sheriff’s Department appealed, however, the Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit recently affirmed the jury’s decision and award. The court found that Durham’s rights to free speech outweighed any interest the Sheriff’s Department had in keeping the information regarding the arrest confidential.
If you believe your employer is unlawfully retaliating against you for a legally protected activity or right, your employer should be held liable for its wrongful actions. Do not hesitate to contact HKM Employment Attorneys to discuss a possible case today.