Cooper County, Missouri has a population of 17,061, and a sheriff’s department made up of both reserves and a few sworn deputies. The Sheriff is Jerry Wolfe. Dwight Pfeiffer was one of Wolfe’s deputies, his wife Robin Pfeiffer was a reserve deputy, and his stepdaughter Jennifer Tice was a detention officer.
In 2008, Dwight Pfeiffer ran against Wolfe and lost. Within weeks, Wolfe fired both Pfeiffers and Tice. Pfeiffer brought a First Amendment free speech lawsuit against the County and Wolfe; his relatives brought wrongful termination claims. A jury ruled in Wolfe’s favor in the relatives’ case, but awarded Pfeiffer $50,000 in actual damages. Wolfe then challenged the award to Pfeiffer, claiming Pfeiffer’s conduct was not protected by the First Amendment.
A federal trial court judge rejected Wolfe’s request to set aside the verdict. The Court ruled that “although there was sufficient evidence from which the jury could have concluded that Dwight was discharged for reasons other than his identification as a candidate for Cooper County Sheriff, there was also sufficient evidence supporting its decision that Dwight’s candidacy was a motivating factor in Wolfe’s decision to fire him. The circumstantial evidence here is substantial. After running against Dwight in the election, Defendant Wolfe fired Dwight – along with his wife and stepdaughter – as soon as he took office. In fact, he delivered the termination notices personally at their home before he took office. Plaintiffs were the only employees terminated by Wolfe at that time.
“Wolfe also testified that he had hoped that Dwight would leave voluntarily if he won the election. The reasons that Defendant Wolfe listed in the letter to Dwight were: ‘1. Modification of staffing arrangements; 2. Your services no longer required.’ In documents sent to the Missouri Department of Public Safety, Wolfe stated only ‘[s]ervices no longer needed’ as the reason for Dwight’s and Robin’s dismissal. Especially since Wolfe emphasized the necessity of trust in police work, one could have expected him to indicate to the Missouri Department of Public Safety that Dwight could not be trusted if that were his rationale for discharging him.
“A reasonable juror could have concluded that Wolfe fired Dwight because he ran against him for Cooper County Sheriff and did not want him in his office. The jury unanimously reached that conclusion after hearing Dwight and Wolfe testify – allowing the jurors to judge their credibility – even while it denied the claims of Robin and Jennifer. The Court declines to overturn the jury’s verdict based on a lack of evidence.”
Pfeiffer v. Wolfe, 2011 WL 2009706 (W.D. Mo. 2011).