A federal jury agreed with Tommy Wright that his employer — the city of Laurinburg — did not allow him a chance to clear his name after the police officer became the target of a SBI probe.
But those same jurors said that the lack of a timely hearing was not enough to convince them that Laurinburg owed Wright damages after he was fired in 2007.
The jury of four women and three men returned their verdict at about 1 p.m. Friday.
“The jury found in the city’s favor, and that’s all I will say,” said City Manager Ed Burchins, who sat with the lawyers representing the city during the trial, which began Monday at the U.S. District Court in Greensboro.
U.S. District Judge Williams L. Osteen Jr. had asked the jury to consider six issues in deciding the case. On several of the issues, the jury sided with Wright. But on the most important ones, the jury said Wright failed to prove his case.
The jury said the city failed to provide “the plaintiff with a hearing to clear his name at a meaningful time.” But when asked if Wright had proved that the failure to afford him a due process “name clearing” hearing “was the proximate cause of damage” to his reputation, the answer was no.
The lawsuit had alleged that Wright 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 and made it difficult for him to find employment.
The investigation, which came just days before Wright was set to become Laurinburg police chief, never resulted in a prosecution.
The jury agreed with Wright that the city had made public statements about him and that the accusations had cast “a stigma on his reputation.”
But when asked if Wright had proven that the accusations against him were false, the jury said no.
Judge Osteen told the jurors that they had a tough case.
“This was a very difficult case, I thought, both as a matter of law and as a matter of determining the facts,” he said after the verdict was read. “There were a lot — both sides made very good arguments to you in both their presentation of the evidence as well as their arguments as a matter of law. The law itself is a little cumbersome and not very easy to interpret or apply, but you all took great care and a lot of time to work through the facts — listen to the evidence, work through the facts, and reach a result that is fair and just, and we can ask for no more of our jurors than what you all did in this particular case”
Mayor Tommy Parker said he wished that the parties had been able to resolve the issues without a trial.
“I’m never happy when we have to go to court, but that’s the place where things that can be resolved elsewhere get settled,” Parker said. “I’m glad the city prevailed, and I know it caused both sides some stressful moments. In my heart of hearts I wish we could’ve avoided that.”
Parker added that the verdict vindicates the city’s policy.
“The court decision indicates that our staff was fair in the decision that they made. That’s ultimately what we want. To be fair,” he said. “I read that the judge called this an ‘unusual’ case. Hopefully we don’t find ourselves in too many unusual situations going forward. Sometimes circumstances happen and you don’t have a policy to handle them exactly. Hopefully we will continue following the right set of values to get it right and to be fair.”