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Federal appeals court reinstates ex-jailers’ lawsuit

A federal appeals court has reinstated a lawsuit filed by three former DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department workers who alleged they were wrongfully fired for reporting the beating of an inmate by another employee.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 in U.S. District Court in Oxford. It was dismissed in 2007 by U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr.

In a ruling this past week, the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated the lawsuit.

The plaintiffs — Tammy Williams of Hernando, Earl Russell of Coldwater and Cheryl Hambrick of Southaven — alleged in their lawsuit that they witnessed the beating of a prisoner in handcuffs. The plaintiffs made out reports detailing the alleged beating and less than 24 hours later they were fired for baseless and frivolous reasons, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit sought lost wages, unspecified punitive damages and reinstatement for the three. Named as defendants were then-Sheriff James A. Riley and two deputies.

Pepper, in dismissing the lawsuit, cited a 2006 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a California case that scaled back protections for government workers who blow the whistle on official misconduct.

The Supreme Court, in its ruling, said public employees do not have free-speech protections for what they say as part of their jobs.

Pepper, in dismissing the DeSoto case, said he had to follow the directives in the California case even though it provided “no federal constitutional recourse for an employee of the State of Mississippi who is fired for reporting a fellow government employee’s misconduct.”

The 5th Circuit said there were factual issues the district court failed to address, such as whether the plaintiffs’ reporting of the incident was part of their official duties.

The 5th Circuit said the district court erred by relying on a sheriff’s department claim that part of the plaintiffs’ job duty was to report unlawful activity of other officers.

The 5th Circuit said the job description did not conclusively direct the plaintiffs to report any illegal activity they witnessed.

“Although it may be presumed that an employee’s official job duties at a reasonable sheriff’s department would include reporting crimes perpetrated at work by department members, it is not clearly so here. Plaintiffs’ job duties as jailers are scarcely mentioned, save plaintiffs’ denials that those duties included reporting the incident at issue,” the court said.

The ruling was issued by a panel of three 5th Circuit judges — Jacques L. Wiener Jr., Rhesa H. Barksdale and James L. Dennis.