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Bohler v. City of Fairview

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

June 19, 2018

DAVID PAUL BOHLER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF FAIRVIEW, TENNESSEE, PATRICK H. STOCKDALE, TIMOTHY SHANE DUNNING, JOSEPH COX, RONNIE SCOTT COLLINS, PATTI CARROLL, TONEY SUTTON, SHANNON CRUTCHER, STUART JOHNSON, TERRY HARRIS, SCOTT SMITH, TERRY AMONETTE, ROY RUSSELL, ZACH HUMPHREYS, and BRANDY JOHNSON, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          ALETA A. TRAUGER UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE

         The following motions are pending before the court: a Motion to Dismiss filed by Joseph Cox, Timothy Shane Dunning, and Patrick H. Stockdale (Docket No. 32); a Motion to Dismiss filed by Roy Russell (Docket No. 36); a Motion to Dismiss filed by Terry Harris (Docket No. 64); a Motion to Dismiss and/or Motion for Summary Judgment filed by Terry Amonette (Docket No. 74); a Motion to Dismiss Filed by Scott Smith (Docket No. 79); a Motion to Dismiss filed by Patti Carroll, Shannon Crutcher, Stuart Johnson, and Toney Sutton (Docket No. 89); a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by Ronnie Scott Collins (Docket No. 92); a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by the City of Fairview (Docket No. 95); a Motion for Judgment on the Pleadings filed by Harris (Docket No. 107); and a Motion for Costs from Previous Action filed by Cox, Dunning, and Stockdale (Docket No. 34). For the reasons set out herein, the various motions to dismiss, for judgment on the pleadings, or for summary judgment will be granted, and the motion for costs will be denied.

         I. BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY[1]

         Bohler is a former detective with the Fairview Police Department (“FPD”) in Fairview, Tennessee, a small city in Williamson County. (Docket No. 1 ¶¶ 1-2.) He has brought suit against the City of Fairview and a number of current and former Fairview employees and officials for causes of action arising out of events leading up to and surrounding his resignation from the FPD in October of 2016-a resignation that Bohler characterizes as a constructive discharge. (Id. ¶¶ 19, 128.) Bohler characterizes his exodus from the FPD as the culmination of several months of conflicts, cross-accusations, investigations, and punishments that threatened the careers of a number of high-ranking officers within the FPD. The court will attempt to concisely recount Bohler's version of those events below.

         A. Bohler's Initial Involvement in the Conflict between Mark Sutton and Pat Stockdale

         Defendant Toney Sutton was, at most times relevant to this case, Fairview's vice mayor, a position that he no longer holds. (Id. ¶¶ 8, 45, 62, 90.) Former Vice Mayor Sutton is also the father of FPD Lieutenant and former Assistant Chief of Police Mark Sutton, who, although he is not a named party to this case, finds himself at the center of many of the underlying events. (Id. ¶¶ 25-26.) Specifically, Bohler claims that “most of the actions set forth [in the Complaint] were committed to cover up Mark Sutton's crimes and to protect his position with the Fairview Police Department.” (Id. ¶ 26.)

         On February 3, 2016, Bohler was at his desk when he overheard a loud confrontation between then-Assistant Chief Mark Sutton and an FPD lieutenant, defendant Pat Stockdale. During the confrontation, Mark Sutton threatened to have Stockdale fired if Stockdale reported Sutton's alleged violations of department policies. (Id. ¶ 31.) Sutton's threats were, apparently, not particularly effective, as Stockdale promptly reported the altercation to City Manager Wayne Hall, who opened an internal investigation into Sutton's behavior. (Id. ¶¶ 32-33.)

         Bohler provided a written statement to the investigation. In his statement, Bohler identified Mark Sutton as the primary aggressor in the confrontation with Stockdale. City Manager Hall placed Sutton, as well as the then-Chief of Police, defendant Terry Harris, on administrative leave starting on February 5, 2016, pending the results of the investigation that arose out of the disagreement between Sutton and Stockdale. A few days later, Hall announced that he had “accepted” Chief Harris's retirement. (Id. ¶¶ 34-35, 38.) With the positions of Chief of Police and Assistant Chief of Police vacant, Fairview Fire Chief Travis O'Neal was appointed as interim public safety director and was temporarily placed in charge of both the police and the fire departments. Meanwhile, Stockdale and another lieutenant, defendant Shane Dunning, became the highest ranking certified police officers remaining in the FPD. (Id. ¶¶ 36-37.)

         B. Bohler Looks Further into Stockdale

         Between February 15 and 18, 2016, District Attorney General Kim Helper contacted Bohler requesting documents missing from several case files that were due for presentation to the grand jury or were scheduled for trial. As part of those requests, Helper sought a Miranda waiver that was missing from the file involving the arrest of a citizen named Robert Hamilton. Upon reviewing Helper's request, Bohler recalled that, several months prior, he had been contacted by the same Robert Hamilton, who claimed, at the time, that Dunning and Mark Sutton had “set him up” in a gun-related matter. At the time, however, Hamilton had not yet been arrested, so Bohler merely recommended that Hamilton contact the Chief of Police or the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation. (Id. ¶¶ 40-41.) Now, however, Bohler was able to connect the details in the file with Hamilton's earlier claims. Based on his review of the file, Bohler came to believe that Dunning had conspired with and acted on Mark Sutton's orders to fabricate evidence in order to retaliate against Hamilton for Hamilton's having filed a lawsuit against a close friend of Mark Sutton's, Byron Anderson. (Id. ¶ 42.) Bohler notified Stockdale and Interim Public Safety Director O'Neal of Hamilton's allegations. (Id. ¶ 43.)

         Meanwhile, City Manager Hall's investigation of Mark Sutton continued. Hall discovered that Sutton had issued credentials that falsely identified auxiliary officers as full-time police officers and had regularly permitted auxiliary officers to wear FPD uniforms while providing security at events on behalf of a private company, APEX Security Group. (Id. ¶ 44.) On February 18, 2016, Hall informed the Fairview Board of Commissioners of his decision to terminate Assistant Chief Sutton. (Id. ¶ 45.) Sutton received his letter of termination of February 22, 2016. (Id. ¶ 47.) Bohler, however, remained concerned that no actions had been taken to address Dunning's alleged framing of Hamilton on gun charges. On February 29, 2016, Bohler took the Hamilton allegations directly to District Attorney General Helper. (Id. ¶ 48.)

         C. The Board of Commissioners Intercedes, Harris Unexpectedly Returns, and an Investigation into the Department is Launched by the County Sheriff's Office

         The next day, March 1, 2016, it was announced-much to the surprise of the FPD rank-and-file-that Chief Harris had been reinstated as Chief of Police, despite the fact that his supposed retirement had been announced the previous month. Moreover, Stockdale and Dunning, mere weeks after having temporarily ascended to the positions of the FPD's highest ranking officers, had been placed on administrative leave. (Id. ¶ 49.) Harris held a meeting with all FPD officers and employees, in which he told them that he had been called in by the Fairview Board of Commissioners and informed that the Williamson County Sheriff's Office (“WCSO”) had launched a criminal investigation into individuals within the FPD. The Board asked Harris to return as Chief of Police, and he agreed to do so on the condition that Stockdale and Dunning be placed on leave until the investigation was concluded. (Id. ¶¶ 50-51.)

         Because Chief Harris's announcement of his return came the day after Bohler had gone to District Attorney General Helper with his allegations against Stockdale and Dunning regarding the Hamilton setup, Bohler assumed-mistakenly-that his allegations had prompted the WCSO investigation. (Id. ¶ 52.) Bohler informed Harris that he believed that the investigation was based on the Hamilton allegations, and Harris asked Bohler to speak to defendant Sergeant Joseph Cox, in case Cox had additional information related to the Hamilton case. (Id. ¶¶ 63-64.) Cox refused to provide any additional information to Bohler, prompting Bohler to complain, again, to Harris. Harris suggested that Bohler go back to Helper, which Bohler did. On March 3, 2016, Helper notified Bohler that she had dismissed the charges against Hamilton. (Id. ¶¶ 66-67.) Meanwhile, Cox alerted Dunning that Bohler was looking into and drawing attention to the matter. At this point, Dunning and Cox decided to initiate a campaign of reprisal against Bohler. (Id. ¶ 68.)

         D. Stockdale, Dunning, and Cox Move Against Bohler

         On March 18, 2016, City Manager Hall resigned as City Manager to take the position of Codes Director. Hall continued acting as interim City Manager until a new City Manager could be hired. (Id. ¶ 69.)

         Bohler identifies March 28, 2016, as the date on which the retaliation against him began in earnest. He states that, on that date, he “was questioned and required to answer unwritten, unsubstantiated allegations that he had used his authority as a detective in order to intervene in a civil dispute.” (Id. ¶ 70.) Bohler's description provides very little detail regarding either the complaints against him or the interrogation. Bohler does state, however, that he later learned that the complainant was an acquaintance of Dunning's and that Dunning had solicited the complaint in retaliation for Bohler's alerting authorities to the attempt to frame Hamilton. (Id. ¶¶ 71-72.)

         On May 6, 2016, Stockdale and Bohler had a conversation in which Stockdale informed Bohler that Dunning was “out to get” him. Stockdale alleged that Dunning had solicited Cox to obtain several leave and sick time reports in order to accuse Bohler of “stealing sick time” by falsifying his time sheet. (Id. ¶ 74.) According to Bohler, both Dunning and Cox knew those allegations to be false. (Id. ¶ 75.) Bohler filed a formal complaint against Dunning and Cox with Chief Harris and Lieutenant Russell regarding the allegedly bogus time theft allegations. (Id. ¶ 76.)

         E. As Bohler's Conflict with Stockdale and Dunning Escalates, the Animosity within the Department Spills Over into Social Media

         On May 13, 2016, Chief Harris announced his impending retirement, just a few months after having surprisingly returned from an announced retirement earlier in the year. Harris informed Bohler-and several other people-that he had recommended Bohler to serve as interim Chief of Police in his absence. (Id. ¶ 80.) Around the same time, someone created a Facebook profile for a fictitious person named “P. Martin Shannon.” Bohler alleges that the P. Martin Shannon profile was created and operated by “Stockdale and Dunning (and/or their agents).” (Id. ¶ 79.) Whoever actually operated the P. Martin Shannon Facebook page used it to discuss members of the FPD, including Bohler. For example, one day in May 2016, Bohler and Stockdale had a conversation touching on the issue of Bohler's girlfriend being hired by the FPD. The next day, P. Martin Shannon posted a false and distorted version of the same facts that Bohler had divulged to Stockdale, leading Bohler to believe that Stockdale was involved with the post. Specifically, the fictional Shannon suggested, falsely, that Bohler had used his position to secure the job for his girlfriend. (Id. ¶ 81.) On May 16, 2016, Bohler informed Lieutenant Russell and Chief Harris that he believed Stockdale to be at least partially behind the P. Martin Shannon profile. (Id. ¶ 82.) Also on May 16, 2016, Bohler's partner, Jennifer Whittaker, informed Bohler that Chief Harris had told her that Bohler had been taken out of consideration for the position of interim Chief of Police, due, in part, to the allegations made via the P. Martin Shannon account. (Id. ¶ 83.)

         On May 27, 2016, Stockdale, Dunning, and Cox met with Commissioner Shannon Crutcher, an ally of Mark Sutton's, at Stockdale's home. The four allegedly discussed the leave time allegations against Bohler. (Id. ¶ 87.) On the same day, Bohler met with another Commissioner, Allen Bissell, who informed him that Stockdale, Dunning, and Cox had repeated the leave time allegations to him as well. (Id. ¶ 88.) Dunning also allegedly repeated the allegations to another officer, defendant Terry Amonette, who later allegedly unlawfully accessed Bohler's personnel file. (Id. ¶¶ 91, 138.)

         In May or June of 2016, Chief Harris and Lieutenant Russell required Bohler to submit to an interrogation conducted by a private investigator named Buddy Mitchell. Bohler's complaint does not go into detail about the subject matter of the interrogation, but it appears, from context, to have been about the leave time allegations. (Id. ¶ 92.)

         At some point, Bohler posted a “cartoon” on his own Facebook page that Cox construed as negatively portraying him. Bohler claims that the cartoon “did not identify or resemble Cox in any way, ” although the court notes that a lack of visual resemblance or explicit identification does not preclude the possibility that the content of the cartoon would have been understood, by a person familiar with the situation, to refer in some way to Cox. On June 13, 2016, Cox complained about the Facebook posting to his superiors. As a result, Bohler and Cox were required to participate in a dispute resolution meeting with Chief Harris and Lieutenant Russell. At the conclusion of the meeting, Harris and Russell instructed Bohler, in Bohler's words, “not to post anything on Facebook again.” (Id. ¶¶ 93-94.)

         F. The WCSO Investigation Concludes, and Fairview Gets a New City Manager

         The WCSO concluded its investigation on June 20, 2016, and briefed Chief Harris and the Board regarding the results. Those results, however, would not be made public until a month later. In the meantime, Chief Harris' retirement became official on June 29, 2016, and Scott Smith became the interim Chief of Police. (Id. ¶¶ 95-96.)

         Finally, on July 21, 2016, the WCSO released a 19-page report on its investigation into the FPD. Although the report apparently confirmed some wrongdoing by Stockdale and Dunning, Bohler was unhappy with the results. He felt that the issues he had raised about Hamilton had been treated by the WCSO like an afterthought and that the report seemed to improperly exonerate Mark Sutton. According to Bohler, a later review of the full investigative case file confirmed that the July 21 report was crafted to cover up Sutton's history of wrongdoing. (Id. ¶¶ 102-06.)

         G. Stockdale and Dunning Sue the City; Mark Sutton Secures Reinstatement

         On July 27, 2016, Interim Chief Smith issued letters formally notifying Stockdale, Dunning, and Mark Sutton of their terminations for violating various policies between February and July 2016. On the same date, Stockdale and Dunning filed suit in this court for retaliation, naming the City of Fairview, Hall, Harris, and every member of the Board of Commissioners as defendants. (Id.¶¶ 107-08.)[2] Stockdale and Dunning immediately applied for temporary restraining orders preventing the city from finalizing their terminations. In their supporting affidavits, Stockdale and Dunning alleged that Bohler had threatened the two of them, as well as Dunning's family, in Facebook posts. Bohler insists that those allegations are baseless. (Id. ¶ 109.)

         On August 1, 2016, Ronnie Scott Collins began his service as Fairview's City Manager, and, a few days later, the Board voted to delegate to Collins the authority to resolve the lawsuit by Stockdale and Dunning. (Id. ¶¶ 112-13.) On August 11, 2016, Collins suggested, in a meeting with Bohler and others, that Collins was in communication with Stockdale and Dunning and that Collins had grown concerned about Bohler's alleged Facebook activities. (Id. ¶ 114.)

         Collins reached settlement terms with Stockdale and Dunning, and the Board voted to accept those terms, in what Bohler characterizes as a secret meeting. Bohler contends that, as part of the negotiations to resolve their claims, Stockdale and Dunning had pushed for informal assurances that actions would be taken by the City against Bohler. (Id. ¶ 117.) As a result, Collins agreed to what Bohler characterizes as an “unwritten term” of the settlement agreement: that, at some point after Stockdale and Dunning's return, Bohler would be discharged. (Id. ¶ 134.) Meanwhile, Collins granted Mark Sutton an appeal hearing, and it was determined that, although Sutton would not resume his duties as Assistant Chief of Police, he would be allowed to take a newly created lieutenant position in the FPD rather than be terminated. (Id. ¶ 116.) On September 1, 2016, Stockdale, Dunning and Sutton were all reinstated. (Id. ¶ 119.)

         Stockdale, Dunning, and Sutton were each assigned to supervise one of the FPD's three patrol shifts. (Id.) Knowing the checkered history between Bohler and the newly reinstated supervisors, Interim Chief Smith assured Bohler and his partner, Detective Whittaker, that they would answer directly to Smith, rather than being forced to be supervised by Stockdale, Dunning, or Sutton. (Id. ¶ 120.)

         H. Bohler Comes Under Fire for Nepotism and Leaves the Department

         On October 1, 2016, Bohler married his girlfriend, an FPD patrol officer. Bohler maintains that, because his new wife “worked in an entirely separate chain of command” from him, their marriage and simultaneous employment did not violate any FPD or City of Fairview anti-nepotism policy. (Id. ¶ 121.) After Bohler and his wife returned from their honeymoon, however, he was called in to meet with City Manager Collins and Interim Chief Smith, who told Bohler that his being married to a patrol officer while he was a detective presented a potential violation of nepotism rules, because, as a detective, he was technically classified as a supervisor. Bohler told them that his wife intended to resign her position, which would resolve any such issue. Collins and Smith responded that, regardless of what Bohler's wife did, the FPD was planning to eliminate the position of detective in a departmental reorganization scheduled to take place later that month. (Id. ¶ 122.) They told Bohler that the only position that would be available to him after the reorganization was patrol officer, which would entail a demotion and a $10, 000 reduction in his annual salary. Collins added that, going forward, “either Plaintiff or his wife would be required to work for one of” Stockdale, Dunning, or Sutton. (Id. ¶ 123.)

         Soon after the meeting, Bohler submitted a grievance to Interim Chief Smith about the matter. He also e-mailed copies to the Mayor and Commissioners Crutcher and Bissell. City Manager Collins scheduled a grievance hearing for October 13, 2016, to be presided over by Mark Sutton and Codes Director Hall, whom Bohler identifies as a close friend of Toney Sutton. (Id. ¶¶ 124-26.) Feeling that the deck had been unfairly stacked against him and that he would not be afforded due process in the hearing, Bohler resigned. (Id. ¶ 128.)

         I. Bohler Sues the City and Others in State Court, Drops the Suit, and Initiates this Action

         On November 28, 2016, Bohler filed a Complaint in Williamson County Circuit Court against Stockdale, Dunning, Cox, and the City of Fairview. (Docket No. 35-1.) The Complaint covered the same general course of events regarding Stockdale, Dunning, and Cox as Bohler has described here, including the leave time allegations, the P. Martin Shannon Facebook profile, and the contention that Bohler had no choice but to resign in the face of having his grievance heard by a biased panel. (Id. ¶¶ 40, 48, 73.) On July 19, 2017, he notified the Circuit Court of his intent to voluntarily dismiss the state court action, and an order to that effect was entered on August 4, 2017. (Docket No. 35-2.) In a Declaration later filed with this court, Bohler's attorney explains that his “original intention was to file suit in federal court alleging, among other claims, a violation of Due Process” but that “preliminary research and evidence in hand led [him] to believe that [Bohler], as a Fairview police officer, did not have a property interest in his employment, which negated a required element of the Due Process claim.” (Docket No. 57-1 ¶ 3.) Believing that he lacked a federal claim or any other basis for federal jurisdiction, Bohler filed in state court.[3] However, according to Bohler's attorney, “a subsequent filing in federal court by counsel for . . . Stockdale and Dunning” in their federal suit against the city “revealed supporting evidence and a strong argument that Fairview police officers do in fact have a property interest in their jobs.” (Id. ¶ 6.) Bohler and his counsel therefore agreed that they would drop the state lawsuit and file in federal court. (Id. ¶ 8.)

         On October 15, 2017, Bohler filed his Complaint in this court, naming a substantially expanded list of defendants. Joining Stockdale, Dunning, Cox, and the city were Collins, Crutcher, Harris, Smith, Amonette, Toney Sutton, Brandy Johnson, former City Commissioner Stuart Johnson, Fairview Mayor Patti Carroll, and new Fairview Chief of Police Zack Humphreys. (Docket No. 1 at 1.) Bohler pleads ten counts, and his Complaint is, unfortunately, not always clear about which counts are directed at which defendants. Count I is a claim, pursuant to 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983 and 1985, for conspiracy to deprive Bohler of his constitutional rights. (Id. ¶¶ 152-54.) Count II is a § 1983 claim for deprivation of due process. (Id. ¶¶ 155- 62.) Count III is a § 1983 claim for violation of Bohler's right to free speech. (Id. ¶¶ 163-68.) Count IV is a § 1983 claim for the denial of Bohler's right to equal protection. (Id. ¶¶ 169-74.) Count V is a claim for violation of Tennessee's Public Protection Act and common law retaliation. (Id. ¶¶ 175-79.) Count VI is a claim for defamation by slander or libel. (Id. ¶¶ 180- 83.) Count VII is a claim for unlawful invasion of privacy. (Id. ΒΆΒΆ 184-88.) Count VIII is a ...


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