A federal judge has refused to dismiss a lawsuit by American Fork police officers who claim their civil rights were violated by the city's administrator, attorney and former mayor.
"This is a significant ruling in our favor," said Lt. Terry Fox, one of the 24 plaintiffs. "We just took a deep breath."Officers allege in the U.S. District Court lawsuit that Jess Green, who lost a bid for re-election, unlawfully attempted to fire Chief John Durrant, placed a gag order on officers in the department, denied officers due process in disciplinary actions and created a hostile workplace where workers feared for their jobs.
Plaintiffs also have claimed Green launched a campaign of "unlawful, malicious, arbitrary and intentional harassment and intimidation" against employees of the police department. That's according to a September 1997 petition for a restraining order against Green to bar him from retaliating against officers involved in the suit.
Judge David Sam, who denied a restraining order in December, on Thursday allowed the case to move forward against Green, City Administrator Carl T. Wanlass and City Attorney Tucker Hansen, who moved for summary judgment.
Fox sees the ruling as a validation of the strength of the suit. Officers claim an order by Green restricting what department employees could say about a settlement with former officer Phil Terry was unconstitutional, violating the First Amendment right to free speech and 14th Amendment right to due process.
"They've been waiting a long time for someone to say that," said Kathryn Collard, a Salt Lake attorney representing the two dozen police employees. "It's really hard to bring a lawsuit against your employer . . . but they were being accused of things and just couldn't respond. They finally said, `Enough is enough.' "
Bad blood between Green and the department turned into a political turf war of legendary proportions. Green's final year as the city's leader was fueled by controversy.
Chief among the heated public spats was Green's sudden "order of termination" given to Durrant in September. Durrant countered he never was never given reasons for his termination.
The mayor's actions were immediately countered by the City Council, reinstating Durrant as American Fork's top cop. Council members said the mayor must receive their blessing before making such drastic moves.
Fox says the harassment continues. Rumors about police misconduct swirl in the 25,000-resident city, and citizen groups clamor weekly in council meetings for an investigation of the police.
Now, five months later, Collard hopes city officials will sit down at the bargaining table before the case reaches a juried court. Armed with what she believes is a strong suit, Collard believes a trial would be a "complete waste of taxpayers' money."
"We want to sit down with the city and work it out," she said Tuesday. "Otherwise, it is going to trial."
She said her clients want the city to establish policies that would prohibit similar actions against police officers in the future, a revised procedure in which to channel citizens' complaints against officers and some monetary compensation for damages and mental duress. Court proceedings do not ask for a specific dollar amount.
New Mayor Ted Barratt said he has not been intimately involved with the lawsuit during the first few months of his administration. He was made aware of the reasons for the civil suit during discussions with police officers while adjusting to his role as the city's executive officer.
Neither side has approached him to arbitrate negotiations, he said.
Wanlass said he was out of town last week and wanted to read Sam's rulings before commenting on the city's next legal move.