Court Rejects Reliance On Handwriting Expert, Reinstates Assistant Chief

In June 2005, Sheriff David Woolfork of the Madison County, Tennessee Sheriff’s Department attended the National Sheriff’s Association conference in Louisville, Kentucky. Also attending the conference were Assistant Chief Dan Parr, Sergeant Lisa Balderrama, Sergeant Annette Martin, Chief Tommy Cunningham, and Cunningham’s wife.

When Woolfork returned home from the conference, he noticed a postcard addressed to his wife. The postcard was postmarked in the last week of June 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky and was purportedly from Balderrama. The handwritten note on the postcard insinuated that Balderrama had traveled to Kentucky with Woolfork as part of an ongoing extramarital affair. Alarmed by the postcard, Woolfork immediately showed it to Balderrama, who told Woolfork that the handwriting on the postcard was not hers.

On July 13, 2005, Woolfork learned that a female sergeant had received a similar postcard on June 28, 2005. Like the first postcard, the second postcard was postmarked in the last week of June 2005 in Louisville, Kentucky, and was purportedly from Balderrama. It read: “Wish you were here! My man and I are partying down! This place is nice!”

The Department retained Michael Robertson, a document examiner, and provided him with a limited set of handwriting exemplars. Robertson tentatively identified the author of the postcards as Assistant Chief William Mitchell, a 20-year veteran of the Department. Woolfork terminated Mitchell, and the County’s Civil Service Commission upheld the termination. Mitchell challenged the Commission’s decision in the Tennessee Court of Appeals.

The Court found there was no “substantial or material evidence” supporting the termination. The Court commented that “the investigation of the postcard offense was handled in an atypical manner. Instead of casting a wide net initially to consider any persons, employee or otherwise, who might have reason to send such postcards, and conducting interviews and other investigation to determine both motive and opportunity, the investigation was assigned to an assistant chief, who immediately handed it over to Robertson. On the basis of the information furnished to him, Robertson issued a ‘preliminary’ report, identifying Mitchell as the person whose handwriting was on the postcard. Robertson’s preliminary report indicates that, at the time it was written, he anticipated issuing a final report that would ‘include investigative factors that support his document examination opinion.’

“In this case, however, there were no other ‘investigative factors.’ Indeed, the record does not even indicate any other investigation.
“The undisputed evidence in the record shows that (1) Mitchell did not attend the Louisville, Kentucky conference, and was on duty at the Madison County jail complex on the day the postcards were mailed from Kentucky; (2) Mitchell did not know anyone in Louisville, Kentucky; (3) Mitchell had not been in a position to have access to the Sheriff’s Department personnel files for almost a year; and (4) Mitchell’s office was in a separate complex from Woolfork and he did not know Woolfork’s comings and goings, and specifically did not know that Woolfork had attended the Kentucky conference. Moreover, Woolfork testified that he had “no idea” why Mitchell would mail such postcards to Mrs. Woolfork and the sergeant.

“Therefore, for the Commission to make a factual finding that Mitchell caused the postcards to be sent to Mrs. Woolfork and Sergeant Murphy, it would have to have concluded that Mitchell obtained the necessary personal information (the home addresses of Sergeant Murphy and Woolfork, and a copy of Balderrama’s signature) a year earlier, ascertained surreptitiously in advance that Woolfork would attend the conference in Louisville, Kentucky with Balderrama, befriended an unknown person in Louisville, Kentucky, wrote both postcards and forged Balderrama’s signature on them in advance, sent the postcards to the unnamed confederate in Louisville, Kentucky, and had the accomplice mail them from Kentucky, while the conference was underway, to Mrs. Woolfork and to a sergeant whom he had repeatedly disciplined for work-related infractions.

“Thus, we hold that the Commission’s factual finding that Mitchell was responsible for the postcards at issue is not supported by substantial and material evidence. Consequently, the Commission’s affirmation of the termination of Mitchell’s employment must be deemed arbitrary and capricious.”

Mitchell v. Madison County Sheriff’s Dept., 2010 WL 1240682 (Tenn. Ct. App. 2010).

This article appears in the June 2010 issue