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Deputies serve at sheriff's pleasure.

Byline: Heath Hamacher

A South Carolina deputy who was fired after pulling a high school student from her desk and dragging her across the floor sued his former employer for wrongful discharge, arguing that the firing violated public policy.

On Aug. 22, District Judge Mary Geiger Lewis dismissed the suit, despite arguments from Benjamin Fields that the sheriff's department terminated his employment even though he complied with internal policy that establishes that his actions were "entirely permissible."

"With this argument, Fields attempts to get around the fact that he was an at-will employee, which means an employer is able to terminate an employee for good reason, bad reason, or no reason at all without incurring any liability," Lewis wrote.

The court noted that in 1985's Ludwick v. This Minute of Carolina, Inc., the South Carolina Supreme Court recognized an exception to the at-will doctrine, but found that Fields failed to reference any "statute, constitutional provision, or judicial decision" supporting his claim that the public policy described in Ludwick is violated when an employee is discharged even when following internal policies.

The court further found, citing Botchie v. O'Dowd (1993) and state law, that Fields served at the pleasure of Sheriff Leon Lott, who said in a press conference that the student disrupted class and deserved to be held responsible, but that Fields violated protocol when he threw the girl "across the room."

According to officials at Spring Valley High School in Columbia, the female student was on her cellphone and not participating in class. She reportedly refused to leave the classroom when asked by a teacher and an administrator. Fields, the school resource officer, was then called in.

According to law, a sheriff may not compromise his authority to discharge deputies at his discretion. "Even an employee handbook containing a grievance procedure is insufficient," Lewis wrote, "to overcome the dictates of a statute such as 23-13-10."

To hold otherwise would render the statute "meaningless" and "eviscerates" the sheriff's statutory authority.

Fields also claimed that the defendants (he also sued the school district) defamed him by alleging that his conduct was "inappropriate and egregious." It is undisputed that Fields is a public figure, Lewis wrote, but the question is, did the defendants act with actual malicea statement made that was knowingly false or with reckless regard whether it was false?

Under the New York Times standard (New York Times Co. v. Sullivan, 1964), the court noted, is not to be confused with common-law malice and "evil intent" or "motive arising from spite or ill-will."

But even if Fields could prove actual malice here, Lewis added, the state's Tort Claims Act bars his recovery.

The plain language of the statute, Lewis wrote, states that a governmental entity is not liable for loss resulting from employee conduct that constitutes actual malice. Further, the state Court of Appeals held in Gause v. Doe that the Act "clearly excludes" governmental liability where actual malice is present.

Fields argued that Gause is subject to state Supreme Court and U.S. Supreme Court analysis, an argument the district court took as asking it to ignore the Court of Appeals decision. Lewis was unpersuaded that the state Supreme Court would not follow Gause, "a fully reasoned" state defamation law decision.

The court also dismissed Fields' claims of negligence, gross negligence, recklessness, and willfulness. According to Fields, "special circumstances" such as the release of statements and press releases regarding Fields' situation created a duty of care between the defendants and him. Lewis, however, wrote that Fields failed to direct the court to the source of the alleged duty, and that the court could not find one.

"Saying special circumstances created the duty, without more, is not enough," Lewis wrote.

After the dismissals, one claim remains, a Section 1983 claim against Lott.

Lawyers Weekly was unable to speak with Fields' attorney, Ryan Hicks of Cromer Babb Porter & Hicks in Columbia, before press time.

The seven-page decision is Fields v. Richland County Sheriff's Department (Lawyers Weekly No. 002-161-18). An opinion digest is available online at sclawyersweekly.com.

Follow Heath Hamacher on Twitter @SCLWHamacher

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Title Annotation:Fields v. Richland County Sheriff's Department, U.S. District Court for the District of South Carolina
Author:Hamacher, Heath
Publication:South Carolina Lawyers Weekly
Date:Aug 28, 2018
Words:690
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