FOP lawsuit partially dismissed

PARKERSBURG – A lawsuit filed against the city of Parkersburg, the mayor and chief of police by the Fraternal Order of Police and its president, Chris Morehead, had two claims dismissed by a federal judge this month and the remainder remanded to the county court system.

The lawsuit, filed in Wood County Circuit Court last year, accuses the city of breaching an agreement by failing to pay longevity increases and overtime. The Fraternal Order of Police, Blennerhassett Lodge 79 Inc., and Morehead are listed as plaintiffs in the suit.

The lawsuit specifically listed Mayor Bob Newell and Parkersburg police Chief Joe Martin as having denied officers their 14th Amendment rights to due process by conspiring to deprive officers of longevity increases and overtime pay.

Newell has maintained changes in pay were made by Parkersburg City Council, the only political body able to do so under the city charter, and several months before the suit he had asked council to look at pay for officers.

A $2-an-hour pay increase for city police was approved as part of the city’s budget by council earlier this month and will be up for a vote next week as part of an ordinance.

In a ruling issued March 8, Judge Joseph Goodwin of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia dismissed the civil rights violation claims against Newell and Martin, saying previous federal cases have established a breach of contract does not rise to a violation of 14th Amendment rights.

Goodwin further ruled since the case no longer contained civil rights violation claims, it was no longer under the jurisdiction of the federal court and would be returned to Wood County Circuit Judge Jeffrey Reed.

Goodwin also denied the city’s motion to dismiss the case as being moot, since the federal court would not longer be hearing the original lawsuit.

Newell said Thursday that while the lawsuit is still active, he feels validated by Goodwin’s ruling.

“I feel confidant it will be dismissed,” in circuit court, Newell said. “My only complaint since the beginning was I was named personally when there was no factual claim. It was an insult to me after being a police officer for 25 years to be accused of violating the civil rights of officers. I felt very confidant those claims were wrongfully filed and would be dismissed, and in the end that is what happened.”

The case, filed in early May 2012, was a source of immediate scrutiny and accusations after members of the lodge claimed they had no knowledge a suit had been authorized or filed by the FOP. Less than a day later the lodge held an emergency meeting and a secret ballot to continue the lawsuit.

Allegations of political motivations have dogged the suit, which was filed days before the May 2012 primary election where Newell was seeking a third term as mayor.

On May 6, two days after the case was filed in circuit court, attorney Ginny Conley filed the motion to dismiss it. In the motion, Conley argued the actions by Morehead and attorney John Triplett were improper and malicious. The motion also stated that prior to filing the lawsuit, the FOP made no formal decision authorizing the suit.

Wood County Circuit Judge J.D. Beane was randomly assigned the case. However, on May 19 Beane recused himself from hearing the case. The case was then given to Reed.

In June, the city filed a notice of removal to have the case moved from Wood County Circuit Court to the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of West Virginia.

Triplett did not return a call Thursday seeking comment.