Former Smithville Police Chief Randy Caplinger is taking his case against the City of Smithville to court.
Caplinger's attorneys Sarah Cripps and Brandon Cox filed a lawsuit in DeKalb County Circuit Court on Thursday, June 4.
(CLICK PDF LINK BELOW TO READ THE ACTUAL LAWSUIT)
"We are seeking to have Chief Caplinger restored to his rightful position as chief. We are also asserting that he is entitled to receive all accrued back pay and every other benefit to which he would be entitled had this unlawful suspension and termination never occurred," said Cripps in an interview with WJLE Thursday.
In the lawsuit, Cripps and Cox are asking for a declaratory judgment "to construe the charter for the City of Smithville and to determine which provision controls and governs the number of votes required by the Board of Aldermen to ratify or confirm the mayor's decision to remove an employee of the city". Cripps and Cox are also urging the court to find that the Board of Aldermen violated a section of the charter by not convening a meeting to ratify the mayor's suspension of Caplinger without pay prior to the due process hearing. They are further asking that the court "hold and declare that Caplinger's suspension without pay effective March 13, 2015 is invalid, and hence, a nullity" and that Caplinger be allowed to "receive all accrued back pay from March 13, 2015 until the date of the hearing in this cause".
After a seven hour due process hearing Friday, May 8 the Smithville Aldermen voted 3-2 to uphold Mayor Jimmy Poss' termination of Caplinger. Aldermen Gayla Hendrix, Danny Washer, and Jason Murphy voted in favor of the mayor's action. Aldermen Shawn Jacobs and Josh Miller voted against it.
But the vote itself became an issue and is one of the key components of the lawsuit.
Cripps and Cox insist that the city's charter requires a two thirds majority vote (four out of five) to confirm a mayoral termination. And Aldermen Jacobs and Miller said at the due process hearing that they had spoken with legal representatives of the Municipal Technical Advisory Service (MTAS) who told them that according to the city's charter, four votes were required to approve the action of the mayor.
Article III of the Smithville City Charter regarding Organization and Personnel. Section 3.01, subsection (2) states that "All officers and employees of the city, except as otherwise specifically provided by ordinance, shall be appointed and removed by the Mayor but only with the approval of at least two-thirds (2/3) majority vote of the Council present voting upon the appointment or removal, and the employees shall be under the direction and control of the Mayor."
But during the due process hearing City Attorney Vester Parsley cited another section in the charter, which seems to conflict with Section 3.01 in that it allows for only " a majority of the board" to approve removal of employees by the mayor. Parsley recommended that the aldermen follow this section of the charter.
The section of the charter to which Parsley referred is Section 3.08 in Article III which states that "The appointment and promotion of employees of the city shall be on a basis of merit, considering technical knowledge and education required to perform satisfactorily the work, experience in the particular or similar line of work and administrative or supervisory qualifications. The Mayor, or the City Administrator, if established by the Board, may, with the approval of a majority of the Board, make appointments, promotions, transfers, demotions, suspensions, and removal of all employees".
In the lawsuit, Cripps and Cox are asking the court to preserve both sections of the charter but to find that Section 3.01 (requiring a 2/3 super majority vote) controls because it is more specific than Section 3.08. "Essentially what we are asking the court to do here is to tell us what provision of the city charter controls the removal of officers or employees of the City of Smithville, such as Chief Randy Caplinger. We contend that Section 3.01, subsection (2) controls. We have two statutes that appear to be in contradiction to one another. What we're asking the court to do is construe both of those statues in such a way that both of them can remain standing. In other words, the scope of Section 3.01, subsection (2) is very narrow. It deals with the ultimate employment actions that anyone can take which is appointment and removal. For those ultimate employment decisions that can be made by the mayor that section tells us that those must be approved by a super majority vote by the board. Section 3.08 is much broader and more general in its scope. It is much more far reaching in that it controls appointments, suspensions, demotions, promotions, and lateral transfers from one department to another. Furthermore it differs from the prior section (3.01) in that it says these decisions can be made unilaterally by the mayor or city administrator. The third way this section (3.08) differs is that it says these decisions must be ratified only by a simple majority of the board. What we say is both of those sections can stand if the court holds that the more specific statute controls. To hold that the general statute controls would result in a complete nullification of the entirety of 3.01, subsection 2 so we wouldn't be allowing both sections to stand. We are saying that applying that concept of statutory interpretation the more specific statute controls (3.01)," said Cripps.
Cripps and Cox also contend that the aldermen violated section 3.08 of the charter in that they failed to convene for a vote to ratify the mayor's unilateral suspension of Caplinger prior to the due process hearing. "We are saying that Chief Caplinger's employer, being the City of Smithville violated the provisions of the city's own charter in that they violated Section 3.08. How did they do that? Well on March 13 the mayor suspended Chief Caplinger and the Board, as required by Section 3.08 is supposed to convene a meeting and call for a vote on the question of whether or not to ratify the suspension of an officer or employee. The Board failed to abide by its own city charter. We contend therefore that this renders the suspension of Chief Caplinger a nullity and it renders it invalid," said Cripps.
"The final facet of our suit deals with a petition for other relief where we are seeking to have Chief Caplinger restored to his rightful position as chief. We are also asserting that he is entitled to receive all accrued back pay and every other benefit to which he would be entitled had this unlawful suspension and termination never occurred," Cripps concluded.
The City has not named a successor to Caplinger and Captain Steven Leffew remains as the “officer in charge” of the department.