Officer Loses Union Discrimination Claim

John Zumwalt was a police officer with the City of Wentsville, Missouri Police Department. As a police officer, Zumwalt had a history of engaging in hostile and aggressive conduct and using abusive and profane language directed at citizens and fellow police officers. In 2006, as a result of a complaint filed by a fellow police officer, Zumwalt was placed on a “last chance agreement.” The agreement set out the various Department policies Zumwalt violated and indicated that any similar conduct or future violation of the policies would result in his termination.

On August 1, 2009, a fellow officer made a traffic stop on a pickup truck he observed to be driving erratically. Zumwalt arrived at the scene shortly thereafter. Interjecting himself into the traffic stop, Zumwalt told the driver, “Next time park in the fucking parking lot, so someone doesn’t throw you down.” When the other officer at the scene filed a complaint against Zumwalt, the Department convened a Disciplinary Review Board.

At the conclusion of the Board’s proceedings, the Union-appointed advocate sitting on the Board moved to terminate Zumwalt’s employment. When the Board voted unanimously in support of the motion, the Police Chief terminated Zumwalt.

Zumwalt filed a lawsuit, contending that his termination was in fact retaliation for his having engaged in union activities. Zumwalt became a member of Local 1032 of the Laborers International Union of North America, which represented police officers in the Department, and served on the Union’s bargaining team.

A federal district court disagreed with Zumwalt, and found that the City had a legitimate business reason for terminating Zumwalt’s employment. Zumwalt contended that the reasons listed by the City for his termination were a pretext, citing the fact that he had received positive job reviews during his employment. While the Court acknowledged that “a positive job review can be indicative of pretext for termination,” it found Zumwalt’s arguments unconvincing:

“An employee performance evaluation was conducted on Zumwalt semi-annually. The evaluation included mixed reviews of Zumwalt’s ability to effectively interact with the public and consult with patrol officers. Reviews ranged from stating Zumwalt must take precautions to not be too aggressive to a review that Zumwalt had a positive attitude. Zumwalt specifically refers to the March 2009 evaluation that indicated he had ‘ made great improvement.’ However, a full review of that evaluation shows that Zumwalt still ‘sometimes allowed frustrations to dictate behavior.’ These mixed reviews of Zumwalt’s aggressiveness failed to provide a basis from which a jury could conclude that Zumwalt’s termination was retaliation for his union activity.”

Zumwalt v. City of Wentsville, Missouri, 2011 WL 3880549 (E.D. Mo. 2011).

This article appears in the November 2011 issue.