A U.S. District Court judge has denied Rutherford County’s request for summary judgment and set an Oct. 28 jury trial in a lawsuit filed by former Sheriff’s Detective Jim Tramel, who claims he was fired by Sheriff Robert Arnold in June 2013 for political reasons.
Judge Todd Campbell ruled that because of numerous factual disputes in the case, he could not make a ruling in favor of the county based on the evidence it presented. “The jury will have to judge the credibility of the witnesses and determine which version(s) of the facts to believe,” Campbell wrote in his decision, which was filed Tuesday.
Tramel filed suit against Rutherford County and the sheriff shortly after he was fired in June 2013, contending that Arnold retaliated against him because he expressed an interest in running for sheriff and because he made public statements about problems within the sheriff’s office, violating his First Amendment rights and the Public Employee Political Freedom Act of 1980.
The former detective is seeking compensatory damages for lost income, humiliation and embarrassment.
The county sought a motion for summary judgment, contending it had a “legitimate, nondiscriminatory” reason to fire Tramel and that he couldn’t prove the retaliation claim. Judge Campbell wrote that even though citizens accept limitations on their freedom when they enter public service, they do not forfeit all of their First Amendment rights.
In presenting evidence, the county didn’t argue that Tramel was engaged in constitutionally protected speech, the judge wrote. Instead, it contended that Tramel was fired for violating department rules regarding sexual harassment behavior.
The sheriff’s wife confronted Tramel at a health club and asked him if he was planning to run for sheriff and got angry when he said “there could be some truth to that,” according to the judge’s ruling. Tramel told her some of his concerns about sheriff’s office spending and policies, the document notes.
“The parties differ significantly in their descriptions of the other meetings which led to plaintiff’s firing,” the judge wrote.
Tramel said he spoke about public concerns with Sheriff Arnold on May 13 and May 14, and then Capt. David Hailey talked to him about “political conversations.”
During another meeting with Hailey, described as a “heart-to-heart,” “man-to-man” meeting, Tramel told Hailey he’d heard he had improper sexual relations with two women employees at the sheriff’s office but never “accused” him of anything. Hailey testified he didn’t believe Tramel was insubordinate.
Maj. Bill Sharp then initiated an investigation into the sexual allegations and rumors, though Tramel denies there was no “situation,” according to the ruling. Tramel contends he mentioned them only once in a private meeting and that nobody filed any sexual harassment or discrimination complaint against him. He was never investigated for violating the standard operating procedure.
“Whether plaintiff’s statements were made pursuant to his official responsibilities or not involves questions of fact,” the judge wrote. “Moreover, whether it was reasonable for defendants to believe plaintiff had engaged in sexually harassing behavior and whether defendants’ motivations in firing plaintiff included retaliation raise genuine issues of material fact which preclude summary judgment.
Arnold recaptured the sheriff’s post for another four-year term in last Thursday’s election with more than 51 percent of the vote, while Tramel picked up 2.25 percent.
The judge did not rule on a separate request by the county to file a counter-lawsuit against Tramel.
In a motion filed March 5, Assistant County Attorney Josh McCreary sought permission to take legal action against Tramel, claiming he used his position as a detective to obtain confidential and non-public information and provide it to area media outlets in hope they would publish stories “to create a detriment or damage” to the sheriff.
The former detective’s attorney, Terry Fann, responded to the counterclaim request by filing a motion that it be denied, mainly because the complaints have nothing to do with the original lawsuit and that they would have to be heard in state court, rather than in federal jurisdiction.
McCreary’s filing states that Tramel provided non-public and confidential information to a Daily News Journal reporter and to a NewsChannel5 reporter, violating standard operating procedures at the sheriff’s office and breaking a “fiduciary duty, duty of good faith and duty of loyalty. …”