Merit Board Has Authority To Overturn Chief’s Discharge Decision

On May 2, 2004, Officer Michael Thompson of the Louisville Metro Police Department smoked marijuana. Four days later, Thompson received a notice from the Department ordering him to submit to a random drug screen. Upon receiving this notice, Thompson panicked. He went to the headquarters of the Department’s Professional Standards Unit seeking advice. When speaking with one of the Unit’s sergeants, Thompson admitted that he had smoked marijuana.

After Thompson underwent the drug test, the Police Chief ordered the Unit to investigate Thompson’s drug use. During an interview, Thompson was initially very reluctant to give the address and last name of the man who supplied the marijuana to him; however, he did reveal the information to the investigating officers. Additionally, when the officers asked Thompson if he had smoked marijuana on other occasions within the last year, he initially denied doing so, but, when pressed, confessed that he had also smoked marijuana two weeks prior to May 2.

As a result of the investigation, the Police Chief terminated Thompson. Thompson appealed his discharge to the Louisville Metro Police Merit Board. The Merit Board converted the discharge to a 27-day suspension, finding that the discharge was unjustified given Thompson’s virtually unblemished record, his good employment history, and his efforts to correct his drug use. The Merit Board concluded that, contrary to a finding by the Police Chief, Thompson had not lied about the name and address of the man who supplied the marijuana to him, and that while Thompson had initially lied about his prior drug use, he quickly corrected himself and told the truth.

The Chief then challenged the Merit Board’s decision in court. The Chief argued that there was only one penalty for illegal drug use by a police officer: Termination. The Chief contended that he had the sole authority to promulgate and enforce rules and regulations concerning the conduct of the Department’s police officers, and that he was entitled to have a “zero tolerance” policy with respect to drug use.

The Kentucky Court of Appeals rejected the Chief’s arguments and upheld the decision of the Merit Board. The Court found that a Kentucky statute expressly gave the Merit Board the authority to “promulgate rules and regulations governing the demotion, suspension, and other disciplinary action” within the Department.

The Court concluded that the statutes “not only gave the Merit Board the authority to review the Chief’s decision, they also gave the Board the authority to set aside the punishment imposed by him and substitute its own penalty, which is precisely what the Merit Board did. Furthermore, Thompson had been an officer for 13 years, had virtually an unblemished record, had a good employment history, only used marijuana on a sporadic basis, sought drug counseling on his own initiative and benefitted from that counseling. This proof constituted substantial evidence to support the Board’s decision to set aside the punishment of termination.”

Louisville and Jefferson County, Metro Government v. Louisville Metro Police Merit Board, 2008 WL 612337 (Ky.App. 2008).

This article appears in the June 2008 issue