CHARLESTON – The state Supreme Court ruled last year a Hardy County judge was correct in dismissing the former police chief’s lawsuit against the town of Moorefield.
The court on June 22 affirmed Judge Charles Parsons’ decision granting summary judgment to the town in Frank Vetter’s age discrimination and retaliatory discharge suit. In a unanimous, two-page memorandum opinion, the court said it agreed with Parsons’ findings that Vetter could not make a convincing case how the town council violated any laws when it voted nearly three years ago to fire him for insubordination.
Memorandum opinions are issued by the court in cases that would not be significantly aided by oral arguments, and present not new questions of law.
According to court records, Vetter was hired by the town as a patrolman in 1977. After working his way through the ranks, he was appointed police chief in 1989.
His career with the town came in an end in the spring of 2010. Following an emergency meeting on April 8, the town council voted to fire Vetter for creating “dissension, animosity and distrust” both within the Moorefield Police Department, and with other town officials.
Specifically, the council cited an altercation Vetter had with then-Lt. Galen Reel in the parking lot of the municipal building on April 7 and a letter from Stacey Ault, an officer trainee, accusing him of sexual harassment. Also, the council noted that at regularly scheduled March 25, 2010, meeting, Vetter admitted problems in MPD had been brewing for the previous five or six months, and he intended to delay his retirement until he “straightened out the mess.”
After the town’s Grievance Review Board unanimously upheld the council’s decision, Vetter filed suit on Sept. 9, 2010. Among other things, Vetter, then 55 years old, alleged he was fired on account of his age and for bringing to the council’s attention at the March 25 meeting to insubordination committed by Reel and Ault.
However, in his order granting summary judgment issued a year later, Parsons said claims of age discrimination fall flat in the midst of, among other things, four of the six MPD officers being over the age of 50. Also, the person the council hired to replace him, Steve Reckart, was 53 years old.
“[N]o reasonable person could infer that [Vetter’s] age or his report of a hostile work environment was a motivating factor in the adverse employment decision,” Parsons said.
Vetter cannot make a legitimate claim for retaliatory discharge, Parsons added, because he offered no proof how Ault was insubordinate, and the allegations he made against Reel were a pretext to fire him on charges of sexual misconduct for which he’d been cleared.
According to court records, Reel on Jan. 9, 2008, pled guilty to two counts of sexually motivated battery stemming from an allegation he sexually assaulted Mary Ann Groves in his police cruiser on Dec. 30, 2006. In addition to pleading guilty, Reel also agreed to register as a sex offender and resign from MPD.
However, two days later then-Hardy Circuit Judge Donald H. Cookman revoked Reel’s plea, calling it “blatantly dishonest." A jury later that spring acquitted Reel of assaulting Groves.
Though the council fired Reel on Aug. 5, 2008, for the incident, a civil service board three weeks later reinstated him. He remained with MPD until resigning on Aug. 4, 2010, to take a position in neighboring Petersburg.
“That [Vetter’s] argument that he is similarly situated or engaged in similar conduct to Officer Reel and Officer Ault fails,” Parsons said.
“[Vetter] was the Chief of Police. Officers Reel and Ault were subordinates, and not in charge of running the entire Police Department. Officer Ault was a newly hired officer, and did not comply with writing a report concerning an incident with another Officer.
“[Vetter],” he added, “engaged in an abusive altercation and confrontation with a subordinate, and threatened the subordinate with termination and criminal charges in a parking lot, which is a level three violation, subject to termination, according to the [town’s] personnel policy.”
Vetter was represented by Keyser attorney Harley O. Staggers, Jr., a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the town was defended by Kathryn K. Allen with the Clarksburg law firm of West and Jones.
West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals, case number 11-1353
Hardy Circuit Court, case number 10-C-81