It took a seven-woman, five-man jury a little over an hour last Wednesday to conclude that the city of Corbin did nothing wrong when it laid off two Corbin police officers in 2014.
Jonathan Dean and Kyle Gray filed a wrongful termination suit shortly after being laid off on Sept. 5, 2014, as part of a workforce reduction effort that saw the elimination of four police officer positions in the Corbin Police Department.
The two-day trial in the case started last Tuesday in Whitley Circuit Court and concluded the following day with a less than unanimous verdict.
Nine of the 12 jurors answered “No” to the question of whether they believed by a preponderance of the evidence that the city of Corbin had breached the terms of the contract entered into with Dean and Gray when it reduced the size of the police force and terminated or laid off the two officers.
Nine of the 12 jurors also answered “No” to the question of whether Dean had proven by a preponderance of the evidence that his termination did not occur in the reverse order of seniority.
He had alleged that another officer with less seniority should have been laid off before he was.
A minimum of nine of the jurors had to agree in order to reach a verdict. In civil cases unanimous verdicts aren’t required.
“We really appreciate the jury’s service. We are really sorry that these officers were laid off like they were laid off,” Leslie Vose, the city’s attorney, said after the verdict was read.
On Sept. 10, 2012, Dean, Gray, Aaron Peace, Lonnie Sawyers and Kyle Trosper were all hired as rookie police officers by the city of Corbin.
Four days later, they were asked to sign an agreement related to reimbursing the city for part of their training costs if they left before working three years as police officers for the city of Corbin.
Gray and Dean contended in the lawsuit that the agreement amounted to a contract guaranteeing them three years of employment with the city after they completed their police academy training.
In July 2014, Dean, Gray, Peace and Sawyers learned they were slated for layoffs in an effort to keep the police department within budget.
By August 2014, Peace and Sawyers had resigned taking other employment. On Sept. 5, 2014, Gray and Dean were let go from the police department and filed the lawsuit 20 days after that.
David O. Smith, an attorney for Dean and Gray, said he and his clients were surprised by the verdict.
“We are disappointed. However, if you listened to the testimony, I think we certainly proved how dysfunctional the city of Corbin is,” Smith said.
City officials testified during the trial that the application process for police officers first involved taking a written test.
After the written test when Gray, Dean and the other three officers were hired in 2012, about 20 – 25 officers were sent to the police academy in Richmond where they underwent physical testing, a psychological evaluation, a suitability test, a lie detector test and drug testing.
About 15 – 20 finalists were later interviewed by the personnel committee, which consisted of City Manager Marlon Sams, Police Chief David Campbell, Fire Chief Barry McDonald and City Commissioners Joe Shelton and Ed Tye.
Tye testified that after the interviews, the committee would discuss the results and then pick the top five applicants with the top applicant listed first on the list and having the most seniority out of the five officers.
Officials testified that Sams read the list of officers to be hired at the next city commission meeting with the first person listed having the most seniority and so forth.
City officials including former City Clerk Erin Tye and current City Clerk Roberta Webb testified that was the city’s procedure for determining who had seniority when multiple people were hired for one department during the same city commission meeting.
However, no city officials produced any written ordinance, guidelines or policies indicating that this is in fact the case.
Ed Tye testified that after the city commission meeting where the names were recorded, Sams would then shred the original list.
Smith told jurors during his closing argument that the minutes don’t “say one thing about seniority … They have no ordinance whatsoever that says it is based on a list that is later shredded. Where is the ordinance with the rules and regulations on it?”
After Dean and Gray were let go by the city, each found full-time employment making more money per hour than they had been making while working for the city.
On Nov. 30, 2014, Dean was hired at a federal prison, which is located in McCreary County, making an annual salary of $39,400 not including overtime. By comparison, he was making about $30,000 annually at the city.
By the end of September 2014, Gray had secured a full-time job with the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department making over $1 per hour more than he was at Corbin.
Gray and Dean testified that the benefits they received at their new jobs weren’t as good as the ones at the Corbin Police Department.
Dean testified that he never would had left his job at the Corbin Police Department if he hadn’t been laid off.
Dean now no longer works in law enforcement. Gray is now a full-time detective with the Laurel County Sheriff’s Department.
Smith told jurors in both in his opening statement last Tuesday afternoon and his closing argument last Wednesday afternoon that this wasn’t a big money case.
Had Dean won, he only stood to recover up to $5,037.11 in gross wages plus benefits that he would have earned had he remained employed for the city from Sept. 6, 2014 until Dec. 31, 2014. Gray only stood to recover up to $3,677.95.
Smith said the reason for bringing the lawsuit was because both gentlemen “felt that they had been wronged.”