Supreme Court says former sheriff’s deputy’s employment was rightfully terminated

By Kyla Asbury | Nov 3, 2017

CHARLESTON – The West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals ruled that a sheriff’s deputy’s employment was rightfully terminated after he intentionally wrecked his police cruiser.

Sgt. Robert E. Fruth II was discharged from employment with the Mason County Sheriff’s Department based on two separate incidents – he engaged in a verbal altercation with his spouse in public while on duty and he intentionally wrecked his police cruiser.

Fruth challenges the finding of just cause for the discharge made by the Mason County Civil Service Commission for Deputy Sheriffs that was upheld by Mason Circuit Court by order entered on July 29, 2016.

“Sgt. Fruth also claims he was denied procedural due process and that the Commission’s practices and procedures were flawed,” the Oct. 23 opinion states. “We find no error and affirm the decision of the circuit court.”

Justice Beth Walker authored the majority opinion.

The incidents resulting in the disciplinary action against Fruth took place shortly after his then-wife, Melissa Searls, informed him she wanted a divorce.

On Feb. 10, 2011, Fruth, while on duty, contacted an EMS dispatcher to ask where to find Searls, who was employed by Mason County Office of Emergency Medical Services as an EMT. During the call, Fruth also inquired as to the make and model of the personal vehicle of Searls’ co-worker, Trey Anderson, whom Fruth believed was involved romantically with his then-wife.

Fruth confronted Searls and Anderson in a restaurant parking lot later that day by blocking the ambulance assigned to Searls with his police cruiser and began to engage in a verbal altercation with Searls and Anderson. Searls and Anderson claimed Fruth made threats toward them.

Later that day, a co-worker claimed he heard Fruth say he had to do something to get his then-wife’s attention. The following day, Fruth again contacted the EMS dispatcher and learned that Searls’ ambulance would be dispatched on the next emergency call.

Shortly thereafter, Fruth was involved in a single car accident in his police cruiser, claiming he was attempting to avoid a deer. A co-worker claimed Fruth told him that his then-wife was going to be the EMS responding to the scene and requested that he tell her that everything would be ok and to ask if they could work things out. Fruth was hospitalized following the accident.

That day, Searls filed a Domestic Violence Petition against Fruth and he was immediately suspended with pay, pending the disposition of the DVP. Soon after, he was charged with two criminal violations of the DVP for attempting to contact Searls and for possession of ammunition.

On Feb. 24, 2011, the sheriff suspended Fruth without pay pending disposition of the criminal charges.

In June, the DVP was dismissed, but Fruth remained on suspension without pay because the criminal charges were still pending.

On Jan. 4, 2012, Fruth was indicted for reckless driving and felony destruction of property based on the allegation he had intentionally wrecked his police cruiser.

On May 8, 2012, an internal investigation of Fruth’s conduct as a law enforcement officer was ordered to be conducted.  On Sept. 7, 2012, Cpl. Forrest Terry issued his investigative report, recommending termination based on Fruth’s on-duty conduct.

After a hearing on his criminal charges, Fruth requested to be reinstated and, on Sept. 13, 2012, the commission held a hearing on Fruth’s motion for immediate reinstatement, which only concerned the filing of the DVP and the associated criminal charges, which had been dismissed. The commission ordered Fruth’s reinstatement and backpay from June 5, 2012.

On Sept. 14, 2012, Terry’s investigative report was forwarded to the sheriff, who agreed with his conclusion. The sheriff then notified Fruth and his legal counsel that he was recommending him for discharge and informed them of his right to a pre-disciplinary hearing following an investigation. Fruth exercised that right on Oct. 10, 2012.

The commission overturned the discharge and ordered Fruth reinstated, finding there were procedural infirmities and that the sheriff’s investigation did not contain any new grounds warranting discharge.

The sheriff’s department appealed the commission’s decision to Mason Circuit Court. The circuit court remanded the case back to the commission for a full evidentiary hearing to cure any procedural due process violations and to allow evidence on all allegations stemming from the sheriff’s investigation.

The commission held a full evidentiary hearing in January 2014 and concluded, unanimously, that just cause existed for Fruth’s discharge. Fruth appealed to Mason Circuit Court, and the case was again remanded to the commission, ordering it to make sufficient findings to allow for meaningful appellate review.

Both parties submitted proposed findings of fact and conclusions of law and the commission entered an order with findings and again concluded that Fruth’s termination was supported by just cause.

Upon review of the commission’s findings of fact and conclusions of law, the circuit court affirmed the commission’s decision on July 29, 2016. Fruth then appealed to the circuit court.

“The record demonstrates that ample evidence was presented to the commission to support a finding of just cause for Sgt. Fruth’s discharge,” Walker wrote. “The commission found that either the public argument in the restaurant parking lot or the intentional wrecking of his police cruiser would have been sufficient to discharge Sgt. Fruth for just cause.”

Fruth did not contest that he and Searls were both on duty and in a public parking lot at the time of their altercation, according to the opinion.

“The commission heard evidence of threats made to Ms. Searls and Mr. Anderson,” Walker wrote. “The commission heard the testimony of the EMS dispatcher who confirmed that Sgt. Fruth had contacted him while on duty as a means to locate Ms. Searls and to ascertain the make and model of Mr. Anderson’s vehicle. Taken together, it was not against the weight of the evidence that the commission found Sgt. Fruth’s conduct in the restaurant parking lot sufficient to discharge him from employment.”

Alternatively, the commission determined that the intentional wrecking of the police cruiser also provided sufficient grounds for Fruth’s discharge. The EMS dispatcher testified that Fruth again used him as a resource to establish which ambulance would be called out to the next emergency scene.

“There was abundant evidence heard by the commission to support its finding that Sgt. Fruth was not fit to continue as a law enforcement officer,” Walker wrote. “Sgt. Fruth’s disagreement with the conclusions drawn from the evidence presented does not render them arbitrary, capricious, or clearly wrong. We find no grounds on which to overturn the Commission’s findings.”

W.Va. Supreme Court of Appeals case number: 16-0797

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