Police Chief Loses Whistleblowing Claim

Larry Grimes was the Police Chief for the City of Tarkio, Missouri. In 2003, the Tarkio police attempted to arrest Eric Livengood for driving while intoxicated. An altercation ensued and the police were forced to use pepper spray and nightsticks to subdue Livengood; two officers were injured in the process.

Shortly after the arrest, the Mayor contacted the Police Department and stated that he had “settled” the case. Under the settlement, Livengood would pay $3,000 to the City for the purchase of equipment and waive any right to sue the City for damages arising from his arrest. In exchange, the City would not pursue criminal charges against Livengood. While what appears to be Grimes’ signature appears on the document, in fact the signature was forged.

Almost two years later, Grimes filed a complaint with the Missouri Ethics Commission against the Mayor regarding the Livengood incident. Shortly after the complaint was filed, Grimes ceased all communication with the Mayor and stopped attending City Council meetings. The Ethics Commission notified Grimes that the complaint had been dismissed and that they found the Mayor had acted within his statutory authority. Eleven days later, the City fired Grimes. The four-member City Council’s 2-2 vote on the proposed termination was broken by the Mayor, who voted in favor of termination.

Grimes filed a lawsuit against the City, alleging he was protected by Missouri’s whistleblower law. A Missouri Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit.

The Court found that for a whistleblowing lawsuit to arise, a public employee must prove (1) that he reported serious misconduct that constitutes a violation of the law, or a well-established and clearly mandated public policy, to his superiors or third party; (2) that his employer discharged him; and (3) that the discharge was caused by his reporting of the violation. Under Missouri law, the action that is reported must be a violation of a “constitutional provision, statute, regulation, or other clear mandate of public policy.”

Where the Court found Grimes’ lawsuit failed was that he “failed to plead with the required particularity the constitutional provision, statute, or regulation that was violated by the City. Rather, Grimes generally alleges that his termination violated the overarching public policy of proceeding with criminal investigations. In order to prevail on a whistleblower claim, the specific facts giving rise to liability must be alleged. Grimes was twice granted leave by the trial court to file amended pleadings, yet he failed to specify the legal provision that the City violated and demonstrate that such action was a violation of clear mandate of public policy. Judgment against Grimes was appropriate.”

Grimes v. City of Tarkio, 2008 WL 169704 (Mo.App. 2008).

This article appears in the March 2008 issue