Abbeville’s police chief has 40 days to persuade a federal judge that his lawsuit against the city, its mayor, and council alleging breach of employment rights should continue.
According to court documents, Noel Vanlandingham has until Sept. 3 to respond to the council’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit. Vanlandingham sued the council in mid-June following a decision by the council to suspend him.
According to the complaint, the council informed Vanlandingham he was being suspended for “conduct that is unbecoming as an employee” and violation of city policy by allowing another employee to possess a city vehicle while on leave of absence.
The complaint indicates the council informed Vanlandingham that an audio recording of Vanlandingham published online was the source of the conduct finding.
Vanlandingham claimed t he council did not follow City of Abbeville Personnel Policy procedures in handing down the disciplinary action against the chief. It also contends the suspension was retaliatory in manner and violated his First Amendment rights.
In its motion to dismiss Vanlandingham’s lawsuit, the city, through its attorney, detailed the incident that led to Vanlandingham’s suspension.
The motion summarizes a conversation Vanlandingham had with a resident related to her arrest by the Henry County Sheriff’s Office. The conversation was recorded by the resident. During the conversation, Vanlandingham is purportedly critical of the Henry County Sheriff’s deputy who arrested the resident and the manner in which he believes the Henry County Sheriff’s Office is run. The resident posted the recorded conversation on the internet.
According to the motion, Abbeville Mayor Billy Helms met with the city council in executive session on May 20, 2019. Following executive session, the motion indicates the council voted to suspend Vanlandingham without pay for 10 days “for insubordination in the failure to abide by a directive that he ‘get along with the Henry County sheriff.'”
However, the city did not impose the suspension at that time.
The following day, the city scheduled a disciplinary hearing with Vanlandingham for May 23. Following the hearing, Helms notified Vanlandingham his 10-day suspension would begin in early June.
Five days later, however, Vanlandingham appealed the suspension and the suspension was postponed pending the appeal hearing on June 3. Following the June 3 hearing, the council unanimously voted to uphold the suspension, but changed the length of the suspension to 10 calendar days instead of 10 working days.
The city is asking a judge to dismiss the case because Vanlandingham has not articulated a valid claim and because the city acted appropriately in exercising its discretion over the chief’s comments.
“Defendants have an overriding public interest in preserving harmonious relations between the city's police department and the local sheriff’s office. In small towns and sparsely populated counties, police officers and sheriff’s deputies often depend upon each other to provide backup during potentially life-threatening encounters. Crimes are often solved by cooperation between local law enforcement agencies. Defendants' interest in preventing a disruption of the relationship between the city's police department and the local sheriff’s office far outweighed any interest plaintiff may have had in criticizing the sheriff’s office,” the motion to dismiss states.