Police Chief Wins Legal Battle With Town

Robert Kells is the Police Chief of the Town of Lincoln, Rhode Island. The employment agreement between Kells and the Town provided for a three-year contract beginning December 1, 2002, and continuing through November 30, 2005. The agreement also provided that “in accordance with Section 9-1 of the Charter, the Chief’s appointment is for an indefinite term and subject to removal in accordance with the provisions of the Charter.”

On January 8, 2003, Sue Sheppard began her first day in office as the new Lincoln Town Administrator by firing Kells without cause. She also informed him that his contract with the Town was void. Later that day, Kells sought and was granted a temporary restraining order prohibiting the Town from removing him from his position of Chief of Police.

Eventually, a trial court upheld Kells’ lawsuit. The Town then appealed to the Rhode Island Supreme Court.

The Town first argued that Kells’ contract with it was invalid and unenforceable on the grounds that it impinged upon Sheppard’s rights to hire or fire a police chief according to her own desires. The Court disagreed. The Court found that the plain terms of the Town’s Charter gave to the Town Administrator the power to negotiate contracts on behalf of the Town. That meant, the Court found, that Sheppard’s predecessor had the full authority to negotiate the contract with Kells.

The Town’s core argument was that its Charter allowed Sheppard the unreviewable right to discharge Kells for any reason. The Court concluded otherwise. The Court found that the Charter provided that the Town Administrator shall “when necessary for the good of the service, remove all officers and employees of the Town except as otherwise provided.”

The Court concluded that the phrase “for the good of the service” had the effect of “limiting the valid exercise of that power to dismiss for cause. It is that type of cause which in law constitutes a valid ground for the exercise of the power to remove.” In the Court’s view, the requirement of “cause” entitled Kells to a specification of charges, due notice of a hearing, and an opportunity to be heard and offer evidence in defense or explanation. Thus, the Court held, “in accordance with the plain and unambiguous terms of the Charter, the Town Administrator may remove Town officers and employees only after legally sufficient cause is shown. In light of this standard, the Town’s contention that ‘for the good of the service’ permits removal based on the judgment and discretion of the Town Administrator is clearly wrong and ignores the interest-creating nature of the Charter.”

Kells v. Town of Lincoln, 2005 WL 1323139 (R.I. 2005).

This article appears in the July 2005 issue