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White v. City of Athens

United States District Court, N.D. Alabama, Northeastern Division

September 22, 2017

JASON A. WHITE, Plaintiff,
v.
CITY OF ATHENS, WILLIAM R. MARKS, FLOYD JOHNSON, TRACY HARRISON, REED WAYNE HARPER, and TREVOR HARRIS, Defendants.

          MEMORANDUM OPINION

          MADELINE HUGHES HAIKALA, UNITED STATES DISTRICT JUDGE.

         Former Athens police officer Jason White asserts claims under 42 U.S.C. § 1983 against the City of Athens, Alabama; the mayor of Athens; and several of Mr. White's former superior officers in the Athens Police Department. (Doc. 25, ¶¶ 6- 11). Mr. White alleges that the defendants retaliated against him for speaking out against corruption within the department. (Doc. 25, pp. 17-20). Mr. White contends that the defendants' conduct violated his rights under the First Amendment. Pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 56, the defendants ask the Court to enter judgment in their favor on Mr. White's claims. (Doc. 62). For the reasons stated below, the Court grants the defendants' motion for summary judgment.

         I. SUMMARY JUDGMENT STANDARD

         “The court shall grant summary judgment if the movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(a). To demonstrate that there is a genuine dispute as to a material fact that precludes summary judgment, a party opposing a motion for summary judgment must cite “to particular parts of materials in the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, affidavits or declarations, stipulations (including those made for purposes of the motion only), admissions, interrogatory answers, or other materials.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(1)(A). “The court need consider only the cited materials, but it may consider other materials in the record.” Fed.R.Civ.P. 56(c)(3). When considering a summary judgment motion, the Court must view the evidence in the record in the light most favorable to the non-moving party and draw reasonable inferences in favor of the non-moving party. White v. Beltram Edge Tool Supply, Inc., 789 F.3d 1188, 1191 (11th Cir. 2015).

         II. BACKGROUND

         Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Mr. White, the record in this case indicates that the police department for the City of Athens consists of two divisions: a division of patrol officers and a division of investigators. Mr. White began working for the Athens Police Department in 1999. He began as a patrol officer and was elevated to the rank of sergeant in 2005. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 37, 39). In 2007, Mr. White moved to the investigations division as a detective sergeant. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 37-40).

         In 2009, Mr. White and at least one other investigator became concerned that some of the senior officers in the Athens Police Department might be engaged in misconduct. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 74-75). For example, while Mr. White was a narcotics investigator, a number of confidential informants reported that they had been “burned” (i.e. exposed to drug dealers as confidential informants) by someone within the Athens Police Department who the confidential informants called “Downtown.” Mr. White deduced from the nature of the narcotics investigations that “Downtown” had to be at least a sergeant in the department. Mr. White and his co-investigator, Officer Greg Parnell, reported the situation to DEA agents in Huntsville. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 74-83).

         There were other incidents that suggested to Mr. White that senior officers were engaged in misconduct. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 62-64, 67-68). One incident in particular prompted Mr. White and another investigator, Detective Sergeant Dustin Lansford, to take action. (Doc. 57-1, p. 52). A young officer, Jason Threet, conducted a traffic stop and arrested the driver, William Jeffers, because Mr. Jeffers was intoxicated. Officer Threet brought Mr. Jeffers to the police precinct and completed a report in which he indicated that Mr. Jeffers should be charged with a DUI. (Doc. 57-4, p. 33). Copies of all such reports must be mailed to the Department of Public Safety in Montgomery, Alabama. (Doc. 57-4, pp. 33-34). Officer Threet placed the DUI report in the mail. (Doc. 57-4, p. 33).

         A criminal defense lawyer in Athens called Captain Tracy Harrison about the arrest. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 59-60). The lawyer had represented Captain Harrison's son in a criminal matter but had not charged Captain Harrison for the services. (Doc. 57-4, p. 22). The lawyer asked Captain Harrison for help with the DUI case. Captain Harrison approached Officer Threet, and Officer Threet agreed to drop the case. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 60-61; Doc. 57-4, pp. 32-33). When Captain Harrison learned that Officer Threet already had placed the DUI report in the mail, he and Lieutenant Presnell got in a marked police car, pulled over the mail truck carrying the report, and retrieved the report from the mail carrier. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 52-53, 69; Doc. 57-4, p. 35). That report no longer exists. (Doc. 57-1, p. 53).[1]

         The police department's records clerk told Detective Lansford about the incident. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 52-53). The clerk told Detective Lansford that Captain Harrison had erased the entry in the clerk's log pertaining to the DUI arrest. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 52, 60, 90). Detective Lansford reported the situation to Alabama's Office of the Attorney General. (Doc. 57-1, p. 91; Doc. 57-2, p. 45; Doc. 57-3, pp. 56-57, Doc. 57-4, p. 47). The Attorney General sent a team of investigators to the Athens Police Department to investigate the report. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 53-54, 58). Mr. White noticed the investigators around the department and asked Detective Lansford what they were investigating. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 57-58). Detective Lansford then informed Mr. White of Captain Harrison's efforts to erase the records of Mr. Jeffer's DUI arrest. (Doc. 57-1, p. 58).

         Mr. White discussed the DUI incident with Holly Holman, a local news reporter. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 105-07, 109). He shared information about the incident with Ms. Holman because Detective Lansford told him that the AG's office was dropping its investigation, and Mr. White did not want the investigation to be “swept under the rug.” (Doc. 57-1, pp. 111-12). In providing information to a reporter about an internal police matter, Mr. White violated the police department's policy that prohibited communication about confidential police business. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 109-10). Mr. White acted in the hope that a full investigation would cause the corruption in the Athens Police Department to stop. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 111-12, 119-20).

         Ultimately, the Athens Police Department reinstated the DUI charges, and reprimanded Captain Harrison and Officer Threet. (Doc. 57-3, p. 53; Doc. 57-4, pp. 43-44, 47). Captain Harrison acknowledges that the attorney who contacted him to ask for help on the Jeffers DUI had been providing free legal services to his son; that he (Captain Harrison) spoke to Officer Threet and asked if Officer Threet would be willing to drop the Jeffers DUI charge; and that he (Captain Harrison) and Lieutenant Presnell pursued and stopped a mail carrier to retrieve from the mail carrier a form addressed to the Alabama Department of Public Safety that contained evidence of the DUI arrest. (Doc. 57-4, pp. 33-35). Captain Harrison does not believe that he deserved the reprimand that he received for his efforts to help Mr. Jeffers avoid the DUI charge. (Doc. 57-4, pp. 48, 52). Rather, Captain Harrison believes that the person who told the press about the handling of the DUI charge bore responsibility for the embarrassment that the situation brought to the police department. (Doc. 57-4, p. 52).

         Following the investigations of the DUI incident, “a lot of things [] happened” that made work at the Athens police department “miserable” for Mr. White and Detective Lansford. (Doc. 57-1, p. 122). Detective Lansford thought about taking a different job to get away from the department. (Doc. 57-1, p. 122). Chief Harper removed Mr. White as supervisor of the department's honor guard and replaced him with Lieutenant Harris, who, at the time, “was not part of the honor guard.” (Doc. 57-1, pp. 124, 127).[2] Mr. White then stepped down from the honor guard. (Doc. 57-1, p. 125-26). Chief Harper also moved Mr. White from investigations to patrol. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 128-29). Mr. White believes these actions were retaliatory because his supervisory role in the honor guard was of great personal importance to him, and his transfer from investigations to patrol resulted in diminished on-call pay. (Doc. 65, pp. 11-12). Mr. White believes that his superior officers suspected that he had spoken with Ms. Holman about the involvement of Athens police officers in Mr. Jeffers's DUI incident. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 209-212).

         On May 1, 2012, Mr. White was fired from the Athens Police Department. Mr. White asserts that this was a final act of retaliation against him for exposing corruption within the department. By contrast, the defendants contend that Mr. White's suspension from the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center (ACJIC) database was the actual reason the police department chose to terminate him. “ACJIC is a state-run law enforcement agency that maintains data for use by law enforcement agencies and police departments in the State of Alabama.” (Doc. 63, p. 2). In April 2012, Mr. White lost his privilege to access this database after an investigation by the ACJIC determined that he had used the system for unauthorized purposes. In April 2011, Mr. White's ex-wife, Sheree Wisdom, had complained to Athens Police Department that Mr. White had been using his data base access to investigate her, her then-husband, and their friends. (Doc. 57-1, pp. 184-85). Defendants Harrison, Harris, and Harper were present when Ms. Wisdom made her complaint about Mr. White's conduct. (Doc. 57-7, p. 10). ...


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