DeSoto case goes to court

Published 10:51 pm Sunday, December 30, 2007

JACKSON (AP) — An appeals court will hear arguments from three former DeSoto County Sheriff’s Department workers who are seeking a trial on claims they were wrongfully fired for reporting the beating of an inmate by another employee.

The lawsuit was filed in 2005 in U.S. District Court in Oxford. It was dismissed in March 2007 by U.S. District Judge W. Allen Pepper Jr.

The plaintiffs — Tammy Williams of Hernando, Earl Russell of Coldwater and Cheryl Hambrick of Southaven — appealed to the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans. The 5th Circuit is scheduled to hear the case on Jan. 28.

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The three alleged in their lawsuit that they witnessed the beating of a prisoner in handcuffs. The plaintiffs made out reports detailing the alleged beating and within less than 24 hours they were fired for baseless and frivolous reasons, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit sought lost wages, unspecified punitive damages and reinstatement for the three. Named as defendants were then-Sheriff James A. Riley and two deputies.

Pepper, in dismissing the lawsuit, cited a 2006 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in a California case that scaled back protections for government workers who blow the whistle on official misconduct.

The Supreme Court, in its ruling, said public employees do not have free-speech protections for what they say as part of their jobs.

The ruling overturned an appeals court decision that said a Los Angeles County prosecutor was constitutionally protected when he wrote a memo questioning whether a county sheriff’s deputy had lied in a search warrant affidavit. The prosecutor had filed a lawsuit claiming he was demoted and denied a promotion for trying to expose the lie.

The Supreme Court said if the superiors thought the memo was inflammatory, they had the authority to punish the employee.

Pepper, in dismissing the DeSoto case, said he had to follow the directives in the California case even though it provided ‘‘no federal constitutional recourse for an employee of the State of Mississippi who is fired for reporting a fellow government employee’s misconduct.’’

‘‘While it is true that the Supreme Court noted … that plaintiffs could obtain alternative relief under federal and state whistleblower statutes, the federal whistleblower statutes only apply to federal employees, not state employees,’’ he said.

Pepper said the Mississippi whistleblower law requires a government employee to report misconduct to a district attorney, the attorney general, state auditor or the Ethics Commission ‘‘instead of going first to the employee’s supervisor who would be the natural first choice.’’

Pepper said since state law did not appear to ‘‘protect whistleblowing to a government employee’s supervisor … it is unlikely that the plaintiffs could recover under the Mississippi whistleblower statute in this case.’’