In Non-Union Environment, Following Lieutenant’s Instructions Can Lead To Termination

A basic tenet of the principle of “just cause” for discipline is that public safety employees are expected to follow the instructions of their supervisors, except if doing so would result in the employee unnecessarily endangering his/her safety or in violating the law. A recent case from Mississippi shows that in a non-union environment – where the principles of “just cause” do not apply – following a supervisor’s instructions about a routine matter could lead to termination.

Push Phillips was a deputy sheriff for the Hancock County Sheriff’s Department. On August 28, 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck Hancock County. After three days of rescue operations, Phillips asked his lieutenant for permission to take his wife, who was “going through a lot of mental duress” as a result of the hurricane, to Florida. The lieutenant gave Phillips permission to leave the state for no more than 36 hours.

When Phillips timely returned to work, the Sheriff fired him “on the spot” for leaving the county during a state of emergency. Phillips tried to explain to the Sheriff that his lieutenant had given him permission to leave, but the Sheriff responded, “You have been a thorn in my side with all of these Civil Service complaints that you have made, and now that it is a state of emergency, I can hire and fire at will. Turn in your s— and get the f— out. You’re fired.”

When the County’s civil service commission affirmed his termination, Phillips appealed to the Mississippi Court of Appeals. The Court also upheld the discharge.

The Court laid the stage for its conclusion by noting that its job was “not to determine issues of fact regarding whether an employee was guilty of the charge or not, but should only determine whether the civil service commission acted in good faith based on the evidence before it. Therefore, we will uphold the commission’s decision unless it is not supported by substantial evidence or is arbitrary or capricious.

“In the present case, the commission’s decision upholding Phillips’s termination was supported by substantial evidence and was not arbitrary or capricious. Phillips admitted that he left his post – indeed, left the State – in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Katrina is recognized as the most destructive hurricane in the history of this State, and Hancock County suffered some of the most severe damage.

“Phillips argues that he did not violate the Department’s rules because his lieutenant gave him permission to leave the state, and both Phillips and the lieutenant testified that Russell had authority to allow Phillips to leave. However, the Sheriff testified that only he, a major, and a captain had authority to permit an officer to leave the county in the aftermath of Katrina.

“A reviewing court does not reweigh the evidence presented to the commission. Nor are we empowered to supervise the intelligence, wisdom or fairness of the decision to terminate Phillips rather than reprimand or suspend him. Rather, we ask only whether there exists credible evidence to support that decision. There was credible evidence that Phillips left the State in the midst of an emergency situation without first obtaining permission from an appropriate person. Under the rules of the department and commission, this offense subjected him to termination.”

Phillips v. Hancock County Sheriff’s Department, 203 So.3d 622 (Miss. App. 2016).