Judge cancels Mingo deputy trial; sheriff prevails

CHARLESTON – Five days before a trial would have started between Mingo County Sheriff Lonnie Hannah and former deputy Roy Glenn Messer, U.S. District Judge Copenhaver cancelled the trial and declared Hannah the winner. Copenhaver granted summary judgment against Messer's claim that Hannah violated his constitutional rights by disciplining and firing him. Hannah already had prevailed at the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals in separate proceedings over the same dispute. The Supreme Court ruled that county commissioners improperly blocked Hannah's decision to fire Messer. The case before Copenhaver started in Mingo Circuit Court, where Messer sued Hannah and county commissioners last year. Messer alleged discrimination, retaliation, harassment and intimidation. His lawyer, Christopher Younger of Williamson, sought damages for loss of enjoyment of life, emotional distress, embarrassment and degradation. He sought punitive damages for outrageous conduct. County commissioners removed the suit to federal court in Charleston and filed a motion to dismiss, pointing out that they voted to keep Messer on the job. Messer dismissed the commissioners, leaving Hannah as the only defendant. For a trial that Copenhaver set to start on Oct. 20, Messer planned to call Hannah as a witness and Hannah planned to call Messer. Both planned to call prosecuting attorney Michael Sparks. On Oct. 15, Copenhaver chose to skip the drama. He wrote that federal law provides a remedy for deprivation of rights by any person acting under color of state law. He wrote that the law distinguishes between a defendant in an official capacity and one in a personal capacity. He wrote that because Messer named Hannah in his official capacity, he would analyze the claim as if Messer brought it against Mingo County. He wrote that the law distinguishes between authority to make policy and authority to make final decisions. That left Hannah off the hook, in Copenhaver's view, because his actions were subject to policies of the county commissioners. "Messer's conclusion that the ability to hire and fire necessarily establishes Sheriff Hannah as the final policy making authority for Mingo County conflicts with West Virginia law," he wrote. "Messer's categorization overlooks the broad oversight power granted to the commission," he wrote. Thomas Kleeh and Daniel Lattanzi of Steptoe and Johnson in Charleston represented Hannah.

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