“Very unusual” and “tricky” were the words federal judge William Lindsay Osteen Jr. used Thursday to described the ongoing case involving Laurinburg and a man who was nearly sworn in as that city’s police chief.
“These cases … rarely progress this far,” said Osteen, referring to the claims made by former Laurinburg police officer Tommy Wright that the city denied denied him his constitutional right to “occupational liberty” without due process.
According to Osteen, the legal matter at issue is the 14th Amendment right to life, liberty and property and the extension of that right to include “occupational liberty interests.”
Wright’s Raleigh-based attorney, Laura Connor, is seeking to prove that Wright was stigmatized by the city’s handling of his termination in 2007.
The lawsuit alleges that he was wrongfully terminated based on meritless accusations that he paid for sex. Wright is suing the city for paid back wages and claims that the firing ruined his reputation, making it difficult for him to find employment. A three-year investigation into Wright’s misconduct resulted in no prosecution by Scotland County District Attorney Kristy Newton.
Following closing arguments on Thursday, Osteen instructed the jury to reach a decision on the matter based on six “issues.”
Those issues were, in the order that they were to be considered:
— Whether the city made public accusations about Wright.
— Whether the public accusations cast a stigma on Wright’s reputation.
— Whether the accusations were false.
— Whether the accusations were made concurrent (or reasonably so) to Wright’s termination by the city.
— Whether Wright was denied a name clearing hearing.
— Whether the denial of a name clearing hearing was the proximate cause of damages suffered by Wright.
Only after answering all of those issues, instructed Osteen, would the jury choose to address a seventh issue — damages.
According to Osteen, if all of the first six issues were found against the city, then the question of “what damages were suffered?” must be answered.
Damages are to be awarded with the goal of “making (Wright) whole” and might not just be a sum equal to the pay he lost, Osteen said.
After releasing the jury to deliberate, Osteen commended Wright’s counsel as well as that of the city for their work.
“You certainly appear to have been well represented,” said Osteen to Wright. “The city of Laurinburg should feel the same way.”
Osteen also briefly alluded to admonishments directed toward the city that he periodically made throughout the trial, suggesting that the city not let the “overbearing demeanor of a federal judge” make them think that they were not well represented.
“This was a tricky case,” Osteen said.
During deliberations Thursday, the jury returned twice to have questions answered by Osteen.
The jury first asked whether two letters from former City Manager Craig Honeycutt addressed to Wright were a matter of “public record.” Each of the letters addressed a grievance filed by Wright following his termination.
After consulting counsel for both parties, Osteen instructed the jury that the two letters were not public.
The other question sent out by the jury foreman was related to the definition of the term “accusation” as it was used in the judge’s instructions to the jury.
“Can a true statement be considered an accusation?” read the jury’s question to Osteen.
After again consulting counsel, Osteen responded to the jury’s question by reminding them of their duty.
Hesitating to go too far in defining the term, Osteen told the jury that it was “up to you to determine the facts based upon my instructions, whether the defendant made an accusation, like the other issues, is for you to decide.”
“I’m slightly concerned at what that question may imply,” said Osteen after the jury returned to deliberation. Osteen went on to suggest that both counsels be prepared to define the term “accusation” in anticipation of a follow up question by the jury.
That follow up never came and the jury, after being permitted to continue deliberating until 6 p.m. by Osteen, elected to return early on Friday to continue its work.
Osteen initially offered the jury the option to continue until 5:30 p.m. or to conclude work early. A message was returned to Osteen from the jury stating that they had decided to continue past 5:30. In a moment of levity, Osteen remarked “that was not one of the options” and laughter filled the courtroom.