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Thrasher v. City of Gallatin

United States District Court, M.D. Tennessee, Nashville Division

September 30, 2014

DENNIS THRASHER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF GALLATIN, TENNESSEE and DON BANDY, Individually and in his Official Capacity as Police Chief of the Gallatin Police Department, and JOHN TISDALE, Individually and in his Official Capacity as the Former Police Chief of the Gallatin Police Department, Defendants.

MEMORANDUM

JOHN S. BRYANT, Magistrate Judge.

This action is before the undersigned for all further District Court proceedings, pursuant to the consent of all parties. (Docket Entry No. 59).

Currently pending before the court is a motion for summary judgment filed by Defendants City of Gallatin, Tennessee and Don Bandy. (Docket Entry No. 74). Also pending before the court is a separate motion to dismiss and for summary judgment filed by Defendant John Tisdale (Docket Entry No. 84), and subsequently amended (Docket Entry No. 93). Plaintiff Dennis Thrasher has alleged a violation of his First Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment rights (against all parties), common law conspiracy (against Chief Bandy), intentional infliction of emotional distress ("IIED") (against John Tisdale), and a violation of the Tennessee Public Protection Act ("TPPA, " also known as Tennessee's whistleblower statute) (against the City of Gallatin).[1]

For the reasons given below, and by Order entered contemporaneously herewith, these parties' motions for summary judgment will be GRANTED with respect to Plaintiff's federal claims, common law conspiracy claim, and IIED claim.[2] The Court declines to retain supplemental jurisdiction over the state TPPA claim, and it will be DISMISSED without prejudice to being re-filed in state court.

I. Statement of the Case

A. Summary of the Facts

Plaintiff served as a police officer with the City of Gallatin from 1989 until his termination on June 15, 2011. (Complaint ¶ 8). Plaintiff filed this action against the City of Gallatin, Chief of Police Don Bandy ("Chief Bandy"), and former police chief John Tisdale ("Defendant Tisdale"), alleging that Plaintiff's termination stemmed from his refusal to remain silent about Defendant Tisdale's misuse of the Tennessee Informational Enforcement System ("TIES") and inappropriate racial comments made about another police officer. (Complaint ¶ 35.)

In 2008, Defendant Tisdale asked Plaintiff to run a criminal history check on Cleveland Ellis ("Ellis") using the TIES criminal history network. (Complaint ¶ 10; Docket Entry No. 103 at 2). In 2009, the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, which maintains the TIES network, discovered that there was insufficient documentation to support the criminal history check conducted by the Plaintiff regarding Ellis. (Complaint ¶ 11). Subsequent to this discovery, Plaintiff approached Defendant regarding the Ellis search and surreptitiously recorded the ensuing conversation. (Complaint ¶ 12; Exhibits 14 & 15). Defendant Tisdale claimed that the Ellis search was associated with a series of local burglaries in which Ellis was a suspect. (Complaint ¶ 12). In the months that followed this conversation, Plaintiff claims that Defendant Tisdale began questioning his loyalty and treating him as a problem employee. (Complaint ¶ 13).

In September 2010, Defendant Tisdale suspended Plaintiff for two days over an unrelated matter involving unapproved overtime for other Gallatin Police Officers. (Complaint ¶ 15). While suspended, Plaintiff researched Ellis and discovered that he had been convicted of murdering his girlfriend in Jackson, Mississippi, and that Defendant Tisdale was serving as an expert witness in a wrongful death action related to the murder. (Complaint ¶ 17). Recalling his earlier conversation with Defendant Tisdale, Plaintiff became concerned that misleading information may have been provided to the TBI during its 2009 audit, and contacted TBI agent Connie Adkinson to "discuss his concerns." (Complaint ¶ 18).

This prompted a formal investigation into Defendant Tisdale's actions surrounding the Ellis search, which the TBI initiated in December 2010. (Complaint ¶ 19). Subsequent to the start of this investigation, Plaintiff was called into a meeting with Defendant Tisdale, Commander Bill Sorrels, and Defendant Don Bandy, who was then serving as a Lieutenant with the department. (Complaint ¶ 20). During this meeting, which the Plaintiff also surreptitiously recorded, Defendant Tisdale voiced several complaints about the TBI and the TBI director. ( Id.) Additionally, Commander Sorrels and Defendant Bandy made several racially suggestive comments about a pair of African American Colonels serving with the Tennessee Highway Patrol. ( Id. ) After Plaintiff's tapes had been released to the TBI, Commander Sorrels received five (5) days off without pay for his behavior. ( Id. ) These tapes were eventually released to the local media, which portrayed the City and the department in a very poor light. (Docket Entry No. 81, ¶ 5).

Later that December, Defendant Tisdale was placed on leave pending the completion of the TBI's investigation. On December 20, 2010, Plaintiff met twice with Gallatin Mayor Jo Ann Graves to discuss his resignation from the department, but ultimately did not resign. (Complaint ¶ 23). At the second meeting, Plaintiff informed the Mayor that he was the whistleblower responsible for sending tapes to the TBI. ( Id. ) This was the first time that anyone at the City of Gallatin was made aware of the Plaintiff's audio recordings.

In January 2011, Mayor Graves became aware of other conversations Plaintiff had recorded that extended beyond the scope of the TIES investigation. (Docket Entry No. 80, ¶ 3). Upon learning this, Mayor Graves and City Attorney Joe Thompson took separate trips to TBI offices in Nashville to listen to these additional recordings. ( Id. at ¶ 4; Docket Entry No. 81, ¶ 5). Recognizing that the tapes jeopardized the department's relationship with the TBI, Mayor Graves met with Defendant Tisdale to express her concerns. (Docket Entry No. 81, ¶ 6). Soon thereafter, Defendant Tisdale resigned from the Gallatin Police Department, and Defendant Bandy was appointed interim Chief of Police while a search for the next chief was conducted. (Docket Entry No. 80, ¶ 5; Docket Entry No. 79, ¶ 2).

At this time, the City Attorney became concerned about Plaintiff's secret recordings, and hired attorney Doug Berry to conduct an independent investigation into Plaintiff's conduct concerning the misuse of the TIES system. (Docket Entry No. 80, ¶ 6). Plaintiff was placed on administrative leave pending the outcome of this investigation. (Complaint ¶ 26). Doug Berry completed his investigation and delivered his report to Defendant Bandy on or about May 27, 2011, by which time Defendant Bandy had been promoted to full-time Chief of Police. (Docket Entry No. 79, ¶¶ 4, 1). As a result of the information contained in the report, Chief Bandy made the decision to terminate Plaintiff's employment with the department, which was communicated to the Plaintiff on June 15, 2011. ( Id. at 4; Complaint ¶ 33).

At the time of his termination, Plaintiff was employed as a Commander in the police department, a position which served at the will of the Chief of Police. (Docket Entry No. 79, ¶ 5). Defendant Bandy has asserted that Plaintiff used his City vehicle for personal use, and that this abuse of his role as a supervisory officer was a contributing factor in his dismissal. ( Id. at ¶ 6). Additionally, Defendant Bandy asserts that Plaintiff's secret recordings of City employees jeopardized the close working relationships within the department, and that his termination was required to preserve an efficient and effective department. ( Id. ). Plaintiff believes that these reasons were merely pretext for the ultimate cause of his dismissal: direct retaliation for his refusal to remain silent about the illegal activity of Defendant Tisdale and for providing information to the TBI regarding Commander Sorrels' inflammatory racial remarks. (Complaint ¶ ...


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