ELYRIA — Police officer Hetzel See’s $5 million lawsuit against police Chief Michael Medders can go forward because See’s claims of misconduct within the department were protected free speech, a federal appeals court has ruled.See filed the lawsuit in 2003, saying his rights of free speech were violated after he was fired in 2002 for insubordination, violating departmental policies, conduct unbecoming an officer and unsatisfactory performance.
An arbitrator later ruled that firing See was too severe a penalty and changed the punishment to a 30-day suspension.
The ruling, issued Sept. 19 by the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati, upheld an earlier decision by U.S. District Judge William Baughman Jr. to allow the case against the chief to go to trial.
Medders referred all questions regarding the lawsuit to Law Director Terry “Pete” Shilling, who was unavailable Friday.
See argued in his case that two disciplinary actions taken against See were not issued for legitimate violations of departmental rules and regulations; rather they were in retaliation for See’s activities as a police union official, for See’s 2001 statements to the FBI and for statements made in an April 10, 2001, newspaper advertisement criticizing Medders.
“Statements exposing possible corruption in a police department are exactly the type of statements that demand strong First Amendment protections,” U.S. District Judge Algenon L. Marbley wrote in the opinion.
The ruling stated that See had complained to the FBI about “grand jury procedures used by the department, the policies prohibiting officers from speaking to the press, the ‘blank check’ that Medders gave to (former) Capt. Dennis Will permitting Will to work unnecessary overtime and See’s belief that Medders had manipulated results of an investigation in order to protect a public official.”
The ruling stated that after See met with the FBI, Medders allegedly told another officer who planned to join See at the next FBI meeting that it would be negative for the department if the FBI investigated internal procedures.
Medders stated that someone in the FBI revealed to him that See was making accusations against Medders’ conduct in the department and that Medders subsequently invited the FBI to review any department files without subpoena, according to the ruling.
No official resolution of See’s complaint to the FBI has ever been issued, and no charges have been filed, according to the ruling.
A judge earlier dismissed the city and Will, who is now Lorain County prosecutor, from the suit.
Contact Cindy Leise at 653-6250 or firstname.lastname@example.org.