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Bohler v. City of Fairview

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

December 19, 2019

DAVID PAUL BOHLER, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF FAIRVIEW, TENNESSEE, TIMOTHY SHANE DUNNING, and JOSEPH COX, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM

          Aleta A. Trauger Judge.

         Timothy Shane Dunning and Joseph Cox have filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 162), to which David Paul Bohler has filed a Response (Docket No. 180), and Dunning and Cox have filed a Reply (Docket No. 197). The City of Fairview has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 167), to which Bohler has filed a Response (Docket No. 192), and Fairview has filed a Reply (Docket No. 203). Bohler has filed a Motion for Summary Judgment (Docket No. 172), to which the City, Dunning and Cox have filed Responses (Docket Nos. 183 & 189), and Bohler has filed a Reply (Docket No. 204). Finally, Fairview has filed a Motion to Strike the Declaration of Bohler (Docket No. 186), to which Bohler has filed a Response (Docket No. 206). For the reasons set out herein, the Motion to Strike will be denied, the defendants' motions for summary judgment will be granted, and Bohler's motion for summary judgment will be denied. Because the court's accompanying Order will resolve all outstanding claims, the City of Fairview's Motion to Continue and Reset Trial Date (Docket No. 196) will be denied as moot.

         I. BACKGROUND

         A. The Parties

         City of Fairview. Fairview is a small city of about 8, 000 people in northwestern Williamson County, Tennessee. (Docket No. 168 ¶¶ 3-4.) It is incorporated under a “city manager-commission” charter. (Id. ¶ 5) See Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 6-18-101 to -22-130. Under that model, Fairview is governed by a Board of Commissioners, with the government's day-to-day operations overseen by a City Manager. Tenn. Code Ann. § 6-21-101. The Board consists of an elected Mayor and four elected at-large commissioners. Tenn. Code Ann. §§ 6-20-101(b), (f), 6-20-201. The City Manager is appointed by the Board. Tenn. Code Ann. § 6-21-101. On August 1, 2016, Ronnie Scott Collins became Fairview's City Manager. (Docket No. 193 ¶ 10.) Prior to Collins, the City Manager had been Wayne Hall. (Id. ¶ 17.)

         Among the functions performed by the Fairview municipal government is the operation of the Fairview Police Department (“FPD”). The City Manager has the authority to appoint, remove, and discipline all department heads and subordinate employees, including members of the FPD. (Id. ¶ 5.)

         David Paul Bohler. Bohler was hired as a police officer by the FPD in 2011. (Id. ¶ 6.) He was later promoted to the position of detective. (Docket No. 188 ¶ 1.) As a detective, Bohler's primary duty was to “perform criminal investigations and deter criminal activity within the community.” (Docket No. 193 ¶ 7.) His responsibilities included coordinating with the Williamson County District Attorney's office in order to “avoid mishandling of cases, ” as well as coordinating, as needed, with other federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. (Id. ¶ 8.) As a member of the FPD, Bohler was subject to General Order 2.02, which provided that “[m]embers having knowledge of other members violating laws, ordinances or departmental rules or disobeying orders shall report such violations to the chief of police or supervisor immediately, either [orally] or in writing.” (Id. ¶ 9.) Bohler reported to Assistant Police Chief Mark Sutton, who was the son of Vice Mayor Tony Sutton. (Docket No. 188 ¶ 13.)

         Timothy Shane Dunning and Joseph Cox. Dunning and Cox were also FPD officers. Dunning, Cox, Bohler, and a number of other FPD employees and employees' spouses were involved in, witness to, and/or affected by a complicated web of gossip, conflict, accusations and cross-accusations that (none of the parties appear to dispute) added up to an environment of significant dysfunction within the FPD and eventually gave rise, not only to this litigation, but to other significant, public disputes not directly at issue in this case. A full retelling of everything that occurred between FPD members in 2015 and 2016 would go far beyond the scope of this opinion. Suffice it to say, the department was rife with interpersonal hostility.

         B. Bohler's Complaints About Alleged Wrongdoing in the FPD

         Robert Hamilton Case. In July 2015, a Williamson County man named Robert Hamilton called Bohler and reported that he had received phone calls from Dunning, in which Dunning threatened to come to Hamilton's home with a search warrant and search it in front of Hamilton's family. Hamilton explained that Dunning appeared to have been making the threats because of a civil lawsuit between Hamilton and a friend of Mark Sutton. (Docket No. 170-1 at 190; Docket No. 193 ¶ 22; see also Docket No. 188 ¶ 2.) Bohler attempted to locate a corresponding case regarding Hamilton, but was unable to find one at the time, so he advised Hamilton to complain to the Chief of Police and left the matter at that. (Docket No. 193 ¶ 22.) Several months later, however, in mid-February 2016, Williamson County District Attorney Kim Helper contacted Bohler and asked him to review three cases that were apparently missing necessary information. One of those files involved Hamilton. (Id. ¶ 24.) Recognizing the name, Bohler contacted Hamilton, who explained to Bohler that he had been “set up” and arrested by Dunning on allegedly false charges, supposedly at the direction of Mark Sutton. (Id. ¶ 26.)

         Bohler raised the issue with his supervisors, Pat Stockdale and Travis O'Neal, but Stockdale and O'Neal did nothing. Bohler then sent a text message to District Attorney Helper, alerting her to the issues with the Hamilton case. (Id. ¶¶ 27-28.) He claims that his initial text to Helper on the matter was sent while he was off duty, but he later followed up with a phone call. (Docket No. 173-1 ¶¶ 4-5.)

         Bohler also spoke with FPD Chief Terry Harris about the matter, and Harris told Bohler to obtain all the information he could about the situation and turn that information over to Helper. (Docket No. 193 ¶ 29.) After trying unsuccessfully to get more relevant information from Cox, Bohler called Helper and further explained the situation. (Id. ¶¶ 30-31.) According to Bohler, Dunning and Cox began making hostile and harassing comments to and/or about him after they learned that he had reported the alleged scheme against Hamilton. (Docket No. 188 ¶¶ 7-8.)

         Eventually, District Attorney Helper had the charges against Hamilton dismissed. She has testified that the decision to seek dismissal of the charges was based on “a lot of factors” and was conditioned on Hamilton's forfeiting a firearm. Bohler maintains that the decision to drop the charges was the result of his whistleblowing. (Id. ¶ 5; Docket No. 191-4 at 22, 35.)

         Stockdale/Sutton Altercation. On February 3, 2016, Bohler, while on the job at the FPD, witnessed a heated verbal confrontation between Stockdale and Mark Sutton. (Docket No. 193 ¶ 20.) Stockdale reported the incident to then-City Manager Hall. Shortly thereafter, Stockdale asked Bohler to draft a written statement, memorializing his recollection of what he witnessed as part of the department's internal handling of the matter. (Id. ¶ 21.)

         C. Allegations Regarding Bohler Circulated by Dunning and Cox

         Bohler alleges that, no later than June 2016, Dunning and Cox began circulating allegations that Bohler had “stolen sick time.” (Docket No. 184 ¶ 10; Docket No. 188 ¶ 10.) Specifically, Fairview Commissioner Shannon Crutcher testified that a group of officers, including Dunning and Cox, told her that Bohler had “used up all of his sick time and that he had gone over and above that and had not reported it.” (Docket No. 173-8 at 13.) Crutcher testified that the comments about Bohler were just one of several instances of “dirt on . . . other individuals in the police department” brought to her by the officers at the meeting. (Id.) As Crutcher described the allegations:

Oh, gosh. They talked about [Officer Name] and the fact that [he] wasn't P.O.S.T. [Peace Officer Standards and Training] certifi[ed]. They talked about Mark Sutton and things that he allegedly did. You can just go down the list. Basically, anybody that wasn't there, there was something that they had participated in that was wrong, whether it be training, whether it be some criminal act. They had something.

(Id.)

         Dunning and Cox concede that they were, at the time, looking into the possibility that Bohler, who had missed a significant amount of work for cancer treatment, had used more paid sick leave than he was entitled to. (Docket No. 184 ¶ 11.) Bohler's treatment had included chemotherapy and five separate surgeries in 2015 and 2016. (Docket No. 177 ¶ 48.)

         In his deposition testimony, Cox explained that there was a display in the FPD's squad room that showed individuals' leave time, and it appeared to him that Bohler was taking sick leave without corresponding hours being removed from his leave balance.[1] Cox admitted that he had no evidence that Bohler was “manipulating [the chart] personally” but that it appeared that Bohler was “getting paid for being off work, and they were not deducting the time out of his sick bank.” (Docket No. 173-7 at 23.) Cox testified that he did not recall ever using the word “steal” to describe Bohler's behavior. Cox testified, rather, that he had suspected that FPD leaders “felt sorry for” Bohler in light of Bohler's cancer battle and that Bohler was therefore allowed to exceed his allotted paid leave time while continuing to receive pay. (Id. at 22-23.) Consistently with that hypothesis, another FPD officer, Jennifer Whittaker, testified that it was her understanding that Chief Harris had decided that Bohler would be allowed to take whatever leave he needed for his chemotherapy and other treatments and his sick time would not be deducted. (Docket No. 165-7 at 23.)

         Bohler has admitted that, when he was undergoing cancer treatment, he never looked to see how much sick leave he had accrued or used. He testified in his deposition that, because he had not paid attention to the matter, he did not know whether or not he missed more work than his paid medical leave would have covered. (Docket No. 177 ¶¶ 50, 52.) Bohler, however, has produced a Declaration by Sharon Gayle Taylor, who states that she was responsible for verifying and submitting FPD payroll records from 2014 through 2016, including with regard to Bohler's use of paid medical leave. (Docket No. 173-3 ¶ 1.) According to Taylor, Bohler's bank of paid time off “was charged for each day that he was absent from work, receiving treatment.” (Id. ¶ 3.) She explained, however, why it may have appeared that he was taking time off without its being deducted from his balance. According to Taylor, Bohler, “[a]s a Detective, . . . was classified as a salaried (exempt) employee, ” and, therefore, “he would only have to work two hours on any particular day in order to avoid having to use up a sick day.” (Id. ¶ 5.) Bohler, moreover, “often worked remotely.” (Id. ¶ 7.) Accordingly, on a given day, Bohler may not have come in to the FPD's brick-and-mortar facilities and may have spent a substantial portion of the day receiving cancer treatment, but, as long as he was able to perform two hours of work by, for example, “work[ing] administratively on his case files, ” he was able to avoid depleting his leave time.[2] (Id. ¶¶ 5-6.) Bohler testified that, if he had exceeded his allotted paid leave, his paycheck should have been docked, and, to his knowledge, it never was. (Docket No. 177 ¶ 58.)

         D. Bohler's Resignation and Lawsuits

         On October 1, 2016, Bohler married fellow FPD officer Shawn Malhoit-a marriage that, depending on the spouses' respective job titles and responsibilities, had the capacity to implicate Fairview's anti-nepotism policies. (Docket No. 193 ¶ 11.) On October 11, 2016, City Manager Collins met with Bohler to discuss two matters: the potential reorganization of the FPD and the application of the FPD's anti-nepotism policies to Bohler going forward. Bohler has provided an audio recording of the meeting. (See Docket No. 194 (Notice of Manual Filing).) Based on the audio provided, Collins' discussion of the potential reorganization and the nepotism policies was at times muddled. The parties agree, however, that Collins informed Bohler that Bohler would no longer be able to continue as a detective. Based on the audio, Collins initially informed Bohler that, as he understood it, both Bohler's detective position and any potential post-reorganization supervisory position implicated the anti-nepotism policies with regard to Bohler's marriage. In their meeting, Bohler disputed the premise that the detective position involved the kind of management responsibilities that would give rise to a nepotism issue with regard to his wife.

         Collins responded that the nepotism policy was only one potential obstacle to Bohler's remaining a detective, because the proposed reorganization would have eliminated permanent detective positions as they had previously functioned. Collins and the City have since explained that the plan was for the FPD to transition to having “investigator” positions that its officers would rotate into and out of for limited periods, although Bohler disputes whether any such reorganization ever actually occurred. (Docket No. 193 ¶¶ 13-14.) The audio shows that Bohler and ...


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