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Court of Appeals Dismisses Police Union Case against DC, Sets Aside Attorneys Fee Award

Friday, November 16, 2012

Court of Appeals Dismisses Police Union Case against DC, Sets Aside Attorneys Fee Award

Washington, DC – The D.C. Court of Appeals has dismissed all claims brought by the Fraternal Order of Police and nine current and former Metropolitan Police Department officers who had sought $15 million in a lawsuit asserting that they were disciplined because they were whistleblowers. In a ruling yesterday, the court set aside a jury verdict of $12,000 obtained by one officer, affirmed jury verdicts and lower court rulings against all other claims by the officers, and set aside an award of more than $430,000 in attorneys’ fees that the lower court had granted to the FOP lawyers.

The lawsuit, Freeman v. District of Columbia, arose in 2005 out of the MPD’s decision to deny the officers’ requests to work during off-duty hours as security guards.  Before the trial, the trial court dismissed six of the seven claims originally brought by each of the plaintiffs, and dismissed seven of the ten plaintiffs outright.  The three remaining plaintiffs were allowed to proceed to trial on only one of their original claims.  The jury returned a verdict in favor of the District in the case of two of these three plaintiffs, but awarded $12,665 in back pay and non-economic damages to plaintiff Sean McLaughlin.  

In overturning the verdict in favor of Officer McLaughlin, the Court agreed with the District that Whistleblower Protection Act statute does not permit a District employee to make allegations of misconduct while remaining intentionally ignorant of whether the facts actually support those allegations.  The Court explained:

[Whistleblower statutes] do not institute a lottery scheme under which would-be whistleblowers receive protection for making unsupported accusations if they happen to be lucky and, for reasons unknown to them, the accusations turn out to be supportable after all.  Rumor and suspicion do not provide an objectively reasonable foundation for an accusation of illegal government conduct.

The decision by the Court of Appeals, which also affirmed all of the pre-trial dismissals and the two verdicts for the District, ends the unnecessarily long, contentious, and expensive litigation funded by the Fraternal Order of Police.  The union claimed to have spent nearly one million dollars in attorneys’ fees prosecuting the action from trial through appeal.

Attorney General Irvin B. Nathan and Chief of Police Cathy L. Lanier applauded the result. Attorney General Nathan said:  “We are gratified that the Court recognized the officers’ patent misuse of District’s Whistleblower Protection Act in this lawsuit, the defense of which required a great expenditure of city resources.  We had an exceptional group of lawyers defending the District on this case, both at trial and on appeal.  Justice has been done.”  Chief Lanier said:  “It is unfortunate that the FOP exhausts member resources on lawsuits with no merit.  I wish we could refocus some of that energy on cooperatively working to enhance our outstanding police department, serve the city, and support the interests of all of our police officers.”

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