Court reverses decision upholding Jefferson deputy's termination

By Lawrence Smith | Oct 20, 2011

CHARLESTON – Because he was not provided a pre-disciplinary hearing, a former Jefferson County sheriff's deputy again will have an opportunity to challenge his firing.

The state Supreme Court on Sept. 23 reversed Jefferson Circuit Judge David Sanders' ruling upholding Sheriff Robert Shirley's 2009 decision to terminate Sgt. Michael T. Dodson. The Court in a unanimous, two-page memorandum opinion said Sanders erred in upholding the Jefferson County Deputy Sheriff's Civil Service Commission's decision finding in Shirley's favor because, prior to his decision to fire him, Shirley failed to give Dodson a pre-disciplinary hearing as required by state law.

Memorandum opinions are issued by the Court in cases that would not be significantly aided by oral arguments, and present no new or significant questions of law.

According to court records, Dodson, who first became a deputy in 2002, was fired on Jan. 6, 2009, following an investigation he had a romantic relationship with Cpl. Tracey Edwards, a detective. Dodson's termination was among Shirley's first acts after taking office.

Shirley, a Democrat, was elected sheriff in 2008 after defeating his Republican opponent, James E. Watson III in the general election. The previous sheriff, Everett Boober, also a Democrat, was in his second, and final, term, and ran unsuccessfully in the May primary for assessor.

Both Shirley and Boober along with Commission were named as co-defendants in Dodson's appeal.

The investigation into Dodson's relationship with Edwards started in June 2008. According to court records, he accused Edwards of improperly giving a suspect legal advice after she apparently told him his civil rights may have been violated following an incident on Allstadt Hill Road in Harper's Ferry.

In response to the complaint he filed against her, Edwards admitted to the relationship. The investigation discovered that on several occasions between 2005 and 2007 when the two were involved they had sex in Edwards' cruiser, her office and a park near the sheriff's office when either one or both were on duty.

After Boober informed him disciplinary action would be taken, Dodson requested in writing a pre-disciplinary hearing. A month before the Nov. 5, 2008 hearing, Boober asked that one of the panel members, Cpl. K. Boyce, be recused since he was the one who investigated Dodson's allegations against Edwards.

According to court records, the panel on the day of the hearing, granted Boober's request to have Boyce recused. It adjourned the hearing deciding not to hear the matter until the Jefferson County Sheriff's Association appointed a replacement for Boyce.

For reasons not immediately clear, JCSA never appointed a replacement. After Shirley fired him, Dodson appealed the decision to the Commission which upheld it.

In reaching its opinion, the Court said state law is clear in "that a civil service police officer be afforded a predisciplinary hearing prior to his/her discharge from employment." It made reference to its 2009 decision in Burgess v. Moore reversing Raleigh Circuit Judge John Hutchison's 2008 ruling upholding Sheriff Daniel W. Moore's demotion of Randy Burgess from corporal to deputy.

Dodson was represented by Charleston attorney Mark McMillan, a former Kanawha County deputy sheriff, and Shirley, Boober and the Commission were represented by Assistant Jefferson County Prosecutor Stephanie Grove.

West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals case number 35699

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