BY WILLIAM F. WEST : The Herald-Sun
OXFORD — A federal court has thrown out an ex-Oxford police aide’s accusations that the municipal government and three city officials conspired to fire her, and has narrowed her lawsuit to a few issues.U.S. District Judge James Dever III, in a 15-page decision made public Wednesday, cleared the city of Oxford, Police Chief John Wolford, ex-city manager Tommy Marrow and the city’s human resources leader, Don Jenkins, of allegations that they schemed to fire Sharon Iglesias in January 2006.The rest of the lawsuit will now focus on whether the city wrongfully discharged her and whether the city and the accused officials violated her federal First Amendment rights to free speech.
“We’re still in the process of reviewing the decision,” Iglesias’ attorney Charles Monteith of Cary said Wednesday. There remains the possibility of recovering punitive damages from the accused officials in their individual capacities.
“We got everything we asked for” in calling for the court to dismiss part of the suit, said Norwood Blanchard III of Wilmington, one of the city’s and the officials’ lawyers in the case.
Dever has set a Dec. 15 deadline for arguments from either side if they believe the evidence is so compelling that he should decide in their favor instead of giving the go-ahead for a trial.
Iglesias has claimed she was fired because she went public with her accusations that Wolford was taking money from an undercover drug purchasing fund for his own use from 2001-04.
Iglesias argued that the city and Wolford, Marrow and Jenkins conspired to intimidate and fire her so Wolford could cover up his alleged money thefts.
Dever ruled that a conspiracy requires an agreement between two or more individuals and that the accused officials are merely agents or officers of the city, much like a corporation.
Since the city, like a corporation, is a single entity, Oxford’s government cannot conspire with itself, the judge ruled.
Iglesias tried to counter with a legal exception that Wolford had an independent stake in the object of the conspiracy: the allegedly embezzled funds.
The judge ruled that the case law Iglesias cited was about depriving a conspiracy victim of money.
And the judge went on to dismiss a state law free speech claim by Iglesias because she already has a state law avenue for pursuing damages via the wrongful termination claim.
The judge, however, deleted the accused officials from liability for wrongful termination because the city — not the three individuals — employed Iglesias.
And the judge added that Iglesias conceded she could not recover punitive damages from the city or Wolford, Marrow and Jenkins in their official capacities.
Iglesias originally filed suit in August in Granville County Superior Court. In November, the dispute was transferred to federal court.
She called for a jury trial and a court order to immediately reinstate her with back pay and other benefits and to prohibit the city, Wolford, Marrow and Jenkins from “threatening, harassing or discriminating” against her for having brought suit “or against any potential witness for participating in the suit.”
And she argued that the city, Wolford, Marrow and Jenkins should be held liable for compensatory and punitive damages. Punitive damages punish outrageous misconduct, while compensatory damages cover actual costs as a matter of right.
Dever’s ruling this week is a second setback for Iglesias.
On March 4, Iglesias was turned back by the state Court of Appeals in an unemployment insurance case. Iglesias at first was deemed eligible for benefits, but the city eventually won a reversal, which held at the lower court level.
Monteith said Wednesday that while he is considering appealing the unemployment case to the state Supreme Court, the state appeals court’s decision against his client “really will have no bearing whatsoever” on the dispute in federal court.
District Attorney Sam Currin has said there was no need for him to conduct a criminal investigation because Wolford was using the undercover drug fund to pay an informant as part of Wolford’s own probe of a police officer.
Wolford has maintained such secrecy was necessary because he did not want anyone to know he was investigating “bad cops.”
The Herald-Sun filed an open records request with Oxford officials to see the drug fund ledger.
Interim City Manager Steve McNally declined. He said that the details are considered “personnel information as well as confidential law enforcement information” and that “Chief Wolford’s personal records are not subject to being released without his consent.”
McNally said the records requested by the newspaper have been ordered sealed by a Superior Court judge.
Marrow denied a similar request in March 2006.