Polygraph Not Admissible In Wrongful Discharge Lawsuit Filed In Federal Court

Dan Dixon was employed as a lieutenant by the Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Police Department. In June 2009, at the conclusion of an internal department investigation into allegations that Dixon had falsified timekeeping records and manipulated a subordinate officer’s work schedule, the Police Chief recommended that Dixon’s employment be terminated by the City. On June 24, 2009, following a pre-termination hearing, the City’s Personnel Officer determined that in lieu of termination, Dixon be offered a demotion from lieutenant to patrol officer (two ranks) with a similar reduction in pay. Dixon refused the offer and filed a federal court lawsuit alleging that the determination amounted to a constructive discharge, and constituted wrongful termination.

As part of the internal investigation, Dixon submitted to two independent polygraph exams. Both polygraphers concluded that Dixon was deceptive in his answers to investigative questions. Because of his failures of the polygraph examinations, as well as answers Dixon gave to investigators during extensive questioning outside of the polygraph examinations, the City determined that Dixon had falsified the timekeeping records and manipulated the subordinate officer’s schedule. The City also concluded that Dixon had lied during the investigation, thus prompting the Police Chief’s recommendation to terminate Dixon’s employment.

When the City sought to rely on the polygraph examinations in the federal court lawsuit, Dixon objected on the grounds that polygraph examinations do not meet minimal admissibility of evidence in federal court.

A federal court trial judge agreed with Dixon, and barred the City from relying on the polygraphs. As Idaho is within the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals’ area of responsibility, the trial judge’s opinion relied heavily on Ninth Circuit decisions:

“The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals has held that, when presented to a trier of fact, polygraph testimony has powerful persuasive value. The Court also recognized that polygraphs have a misleading reputation as a truth teller.

“In this action, the essence of the parties’ dispute is whether Dixon was truthful in reporting time. The City determined, with the aid of the polygraph examinations, interviews, and other investigative techniques, that Dixon was not truthful. With that determination made, the City disciplined Dixon accordingly. Thus, in its simplest terms, Dixon contends that he was harmed when the City falsely found him to be untruthful. For this reason, this is plainly a case where the credibility of the parties, particularly Dixon, is the operative fact that will ultimately determine who prevails.

“Dixon’s polygraph results, even the fact that a polygraph was administered is relevant for obvious reasons. Here, however, there is great potential for jurors to abandon their duty to fairly evaluate Dixon’s credibility in favor of accepting the results of the polygraph examination. This potential undermines the test’s relevance, and this potential prejudice substantially outweighs the probative value. Moreover, polygraph evidence has the potential to replace a jury’s credibility determination.

“This case depends almost entirely upon the trier of fact’s determination regarding Dixon’s credibility. This determination is reserved to the trier of fact, making admission of the polygraph evidence unduly prejudicial. The polygraph testimony would be tantamount to testimony regarding the defendant’s guilt or innocence. Further, just mention of the polygraph examinations, even without telling the results, is prejudicial.”

Dixon v. City of Coeur d’Alene, 2010 WL 4867363 (D. Idaho 2010).

This article appears in the February 2011 issue