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Posted September 9, 2009 | Copyright © The Northern Virginia Daily
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Town looks to resolve suit from ex-officer

Strasburg files motion for summary judgment in Stickley's First Amendment retaliation claim

By Elizabeth Wilkerson -- ewilkerson@nvdaily.com

STRASBURG -- The town is seeking summary judgment in a lawsuit filed by a former Strasburg police lieutenant, according to online U.S. District Court records.

On Friday, Rosalie P. Fessier, an attorney representing the town, filed a motion for summary judgment -- which would allow the judge to make a decision on the case without a full trial -- in the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in February by former officer Scott A. Stickley.

In his suit, Stickley alleges Police Chief Tim Sutherly and Town Manager Kevin Fauber denied his due process and equal protection rights and retaliated against him for exercising various First Amendment rights. The town sought to have his claims dismissed, and, in an order filed in June, U.S. District Judge Samuel G. Wilson dismissed all but Stickley's claim of First Amendment retaliation.

In its motion for summary judgment, the town argues that Stickley has "failed to establish a First Amendment violation."

According to a memorandum supporting the town's motion, Stickley was reassigned to the position of school resource officer in July 2007, but kept his rank of lieutenant, pay and benefits.

"There were several incidents leading to Stickley's transfer," the memo says, including his "violation of a direct order to schedule an extra officer in light of recent bank robberies in the area, ... and the improper use of his town issued vehicle."

On May 29, 2008, Stickley was notified that his rank and title of lieutenant would be removed to "avoid confusion over his rank and supervisory authority," though he would not lose any pay or benefits, it says.

Soon after, Sutherly received a phone call from then-Councilman "Carl Rinker, stating that 'I don't know what you think you're doing up there, but I just talked to Scott Stickley and he has got an attorney and is going to sue you and the town because you are going to take his bars for no reason,'" the memo says. Also, a resident "said she had spoken to Stickley and he told her he was losing his rank and wished that [Sutherly] would reconsider," it says.

One of the Police Department's goals is to "maintain an efficient and effective organizational structure for the delivery of police services," the memo says. Thus, it has a chain of command that employees are expected to follow.

Violating the chain of command "could constitute insubordination or serious breach of discipline or could constitute conduct which would impair the efficiency or reputation of the department, its members or employees," either of which "could result in dismissal even with a single occurrence," it says.

As a result of the communications from Rinker and the resident, Sutherly placed Stickley on administrative leave with pay. Ultimately, Stickley was terminated, it says.

Stickley argues that his conversation with Rinker "was a matter of public concern because there had been some media attention in the summer and fall of 2007" regarding the Police Department, it says.

A public employee's speech is constitutionally protected if it relates to matters of public concern and if the interests of the speaker and community outweigh the interests of the employer in maintaining an efficient workplace, the memo says.

"In this case, the evidence that, a year prior, there were rumors and gossip in town regarding Stickley's reassignment to SRO, one letter to the editor demanding 'full disclosure' of personnel decisions respecting two unidentified officers, one article in a local paper about an anonymous e-mail sent to Town Council, and one comment by a Town Council member in a public meeting asking for information about personnel issues ... does not render [Stickley's] statement regarding his removal of rank a matter of public concern," it says.

Also, a procedure existed for Stickley to voice criticism of Sutherly's decision to remove his rank, the memo says. Instead, it says, Stickley "chose to go outside those procedures ...thus going over [Sutherly's] head and undermining his authority.

"The Defendants' concerns clearly outweigh any interest Stickley may have in stating his dissatisfaction with the decision to remove his rank and threatening a lawsuit."

A hearing on the motion is set for Oct. 5 at 12:30 p.m., according to online court records.

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