An appeals court on Monday upheld the dismissal of a federal lawsuit filed by 15 police officers alleging corruption among city officials and the Lafayette Police Department.
Although the three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit denied the city’s motion for damages on the appeal, the judges noted the city’s case “is not so wholly without legal merit” to warrant additional sanctions beyond those already imposed.
The appellate court agreed with U.S. District Judge Richard Haik’s dismissal of the suit and upheld a district-level order for the police officers who filed the suit to pay more than $115,000 in sanctions, court costs and attorney’s fees to the city and police department officials named as defendants.
“It’s a win, win, win, win for the city,” City-Parish Attorney Michael Corry said on Tuesday.
The officers’ claims of corruption and racism — and of city and police officials’ tendency to punish officers for airing those allegations — were the focus of their case in a two-year court battle dismissed in August.
Circuit Judges Edith H. Jones, Jerry E. Smith and Gregg J. Costa said in the decision that the officers’ allegations of Constitutional violations “related to employment matters that were personal to the plaintiffs,” and “those sorts of grievances communicated up the chain of command are not protected speech.”
Although the suit started out with 13 defendants, including City-Parish President Joey Durel and a handful of ranking police officers, only four remained on the suit upon its dismissal: Lafayette Police Chief Jim Craft, former Lafayette Police Department Lt. Jackie Alfred, Lafayette Consolidated Government and Chief Administrative Officer Dee Stanley.
The number of plaintiffs was also whittled down from 15 to nine during two years of litigation in the federal Western District of Louisiana and included former officers, detectives and lieutenants with the Lafayette Police Department.
Chris Alexander, one of three Baton Rouge attorneys representing the officers in the suit, said via email Tuesday the officers “respectfully but vehemently disagree with the ruling of the court,” noting the district court never admitted a “multitude of damning recordings in (his) clients’ possession” as evidence in the case.
“We will meet with our clients — all stellar officers — and determine our next step,” Alexander said. “If they decide not to appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court, they will determine which, if any, of these recordings are released to the public and in what manner. Obviously these recordings are a matter of compelling public interest.”
The officers in the suit used a website created by their attorneys — realcopsvcraft.com — to air clandestine recordings of on-duty officers holding the kinds of conversations said to support the plaintiffs’ claims, but U.S. Magistrate Judge Patrick Hanna ordered it shut down to protect potential jurors from bias should the suit have gone to trial.
Haik agreed. But the 5th Circuit later released an opinion that said Hanna’s shutdown of the website hindered the officers’ First Amendment right to free speech.
Follow Lanie Lee Cook on Twitter, @lanieleecook, or contact her by phone at (337) 534-0825.