Mark Wood is a lieutenant with the Marion County, Indiana Sheriff’s Department. One of Wood’s responsibilities was compiling crime statistics and submitting them to the FBI in the form of Uniform Crime Reports, or UCRs.
In August 2002, Wood was suspended by former Sheriff Jack Cottey because of his refusal to submit inaccurate UCRs that underreported the level of crime in Marion County. The unpaid suspension lasted four days, causing Wood to lose approximately $950 of pay. In addition to the suspension, Wood was retaliated against verbally. For example, Cottey was quoted in an Indianapolis Star article calling Wood a “fucking lieutenant,” and Cottey said that he would “get that skinny S.O.B.,” referring to Wood.
Wood brought a First Amendment whistleblowing lawsuit against the County, alleging that Cottey’s conduct violated his free speech rights. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Wood and awarded him $250,000 in compensatory damages. The County then moved to dismiss the jury’s verdict.
A federal court refused the County’s request to overturn the verdict. The key issue was whether Cottey had “final policymaking authority.” Under §1983 of the Civil Rights Act, an employer is liable for actions of its employees that violate constitutional rights if the actions make up a policy or custom that takes any of three forms: (1) An express policy that, when enforced, causes a constitutional deprivation; (2) a widespread practice that is so permanent and well-settled as to constitute a ‘custom or usage’ with the force of law; or (3) an allegation that the constitutional injury was caused by a person with final policymaking authority.”
The Court found that Cottey’s decision fell within the third category. The Court concluded that for short-term suspension, policymaking authority in the County rested with the Sheriff, who has the ability to temporarily suspend employees without pay for a period not exceeding 15 days. The Court concluded that “since Wood’s suspension was only for four days, the Sheriff’s decision was not subject to review by the Sheriff’s Merit Board. As such, the Sheriff was the final policymaker.”
The Court did rule that the jury’s $250,000 verdict was excessive in light of decisions in other retaliation cases over the last several years. The Court gave Wood the choice of either accepting a reduction in the amount of the verdict to $50,000 or to undergo a new trial.
Wood v. Marion County Sheriff, 2005 WL 1528226 (S.D.Ind. 2005).
This article appears in the September 2005 issue