Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Federal judge rules in favor of city in ex-cop wrongful termination case

A Billings federal judge has ruled that the City of Columbus, the former police chief, and the mayor followed the proper process in the termination of an ex-officer.
United States Magistrate Judge Timothy Cavan ruled against ex-Columbus police officer Paul Caraway, who argued that he had been deprived of procedural due process following his November 2015 termination.
Caraway was accused of sexual assault by a female dispatcher in July 2015. The accusation was immediately followed by an approximately three-month investigation by the Montana Department of Justice, Division of Criminal Investigation, at the request of former Police Chief Bill Pronovost.
The DCI investigation found that, while inappropriate actions may have taken place, no charges would be filed due to credibility issues with both the dispatcher and Caraway.
Upon completion of the DCI investigation, Pronovost conducted an independent, internal investigation of Caraway. The results of this second investigation were the grounds for Caraway's termination.
In last week's ruling by Cavan, the judge wrote that, “The undisputed facts establish that Mayor Woltermann provided Caraway with written notice of the allegations brought against him, the notice outlined the evidence in support of those allegations, and Caraway was given the opportunity to respond in writing. Therefore, the pre-termination process provided by the City complied with the requirements of due process.”
As for a post-termination hearing in front of the city's police commission, Cavan found that the process was available to Caraway and immediately accessible.
Caraway argued that he was not given an opportunity to participate in a “name-clearing hearing,” but the judge ruled that the post-termination process available to Caraway would have been sufficient. Caraway, however, chose to not participate in the process.
According to the ruling, the judge deemed invalid Caraway's explanation that he failed to use the post-termination process available to him because he did not understand how it worked.
“People are presumed to know the law. Charged with that knowledge, an individual cannot bypass a state's statutory procedures – that clearly provide procedural due process – and then bring an action seeking damages for the alleged denial of that right,” Judge Cavan wrote in his order.
Cavan also noted that Caraway had become aware of his right to appeal at some point after his termination, but Caraway never acted upon this information.
“He opted instead to wait several more months to file this action,” Cavan wrote.
Summary judgement in favor of granting qualified immunity for Woltermann and Pronovost was also ordered. Qualified immunity protects those working in official state or federal capacities from civil liability as long as they do not knowingly violate constitutional rights that have been clearly established.
In addition, Judge Cavan found that the city did not violate its written personnel policy, as Caraway claimed.
The judge denied a motion Caraway filed in August 2017 seeking permission to submit a third amended complaint, with the intent to add another claim against the city – that Caraway's termination was not for good cause.
The request for a third amended complaint was filed several months after an agreed-upon deadline for such motions. Judge Cavan found that Caraway did not diligently make the motion or have a good reason for missing the deadline.
With Cavan’s summary judgements, the various planks of Caraway's case against the city have been effectively dismantled. It is unknown if Caraway will appeal the ruling to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.