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Judge rules on wrongful termination, libel suit brought by former Bald Head public safety officers

Updated: Dec. 8, 2020 at 5:26 PM EST
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BALD HEAD ISLAND, N.C. (WECT) - After years of litigation, a federal civil rights case brought by four former public safety officers against the Village of Bald Head Island and two administrators resulted in a split decision by the presiding judge.

After a bench trial, Senior United States District Court Judge Malcolm Howard found former Village Manager Calvin Peck and former Public Safety Director Caroline Mitchell libeled four officers by maliciously including language in their termination letters that accused them of inappropriate conduct and even sexual harassment.

Donald Koons, Herbert Bryant, Jesse Conner, Lt. Nick Terrell, and Lt. Thomas Cannon were fired in late summer 2014, and their termination letters were released to the public and the media.

In those letters, Peck and Mitchell claimed the officers, through a text message chain, had violated village policy, participated in inappropriate electronic communications, treated other employees “discourteously,” and even accused them of sexual harassment.

Those claims came after a different village employee, according to the findings of fact document, showed a text message chain where the group was complaining about leadership within the department, and some of the officers made crude jokes.

That employee’s showing of the messages was translated into a “complaint” of sexual harassment.

The officers sued, accusing the village of wrongful termination and contract violation, and accusing Mitchell and Peck of not giving them due process as well as libeling them through the release of the termination letters.

During the trial, which took place in September after the case was remanded back to district court, the court considered “findings of fact” on the claims.

Regarding the complaint of sexual harassment, the judge found that such a complaint never existed—the employee testified to such.

The judge also found, through testimony and evidence submitted during the trial, that Mitchell had already decided to fire the officers beforehand, and Peck agreed to do so.

Through these findings, the judge ruled in favor of the plaintiffs when it came to most of the libel allegations against Peck and Mitchell, as well as the claims of violating due process.

Attorneys for the officers were pleased with the results.

“There was and is no evidence that any of our clients committed sexual harassment, harassment, discourteous treatment of fellow employees, inappropriate electronic communication or detrimental personal conduct. We are satisfied with the Court’s conclusions regarding our clients’ actions and hope that the public in general will be aware that Mr. Connor, Mr. Cannon, Mr. Koons and Mr. Terrell are good people, who performed their jobs well, but were the victims of personal, malicious attacks by people in power over them,” they said in a statement.

In total, the four officers were awarded $707,000 in damages, because the court found the termination letters resulted in all four missing out on potential wages, as well as experiencing emotional strife.

“The long term consequences of the Village of Bald Head Island’s actions against our clients have been severe. No amount of money will ever make them whole, but that their reputations have been partially restored is priceless. We also hope that decision makers in local governments see this verdict and understand that they can be held accountable.”

However, Howard determined the Village of Bald Head Island did not wrongfully terminate the four officers or violate their contracts, and as an entity was not responsible for libel.

In a statement from a spokesperson, the Village responded to queries about the case, saying:

“The Village of Bald Head Island has received and is reviewing the Findings of Fact and Conclusions of Law from the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of N.C. in a case arising from the termination of four Public Safety Officers. The Village will consider whether any additional legal filing or appeal is necessary and proper. It is important to the Village that employment and termination of employment be handled properly and it will continue to endeavor to do so.”

Attorneys for Peck and Mitchell were reached by reporters, but said they needed to contact their clients about a comment. WECT will add those comments if they are received.

Both sides of the case have the opportunity to appeal the specific counts that did not go in their favor, either by returning to Howard for review of specific parts of the findings of fact, or by appealing to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals.

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