A jury in federal court took 90 minutes Thursday to find that a former Phenix City firefighter violated city policy when, on his day off, he called the mayor. David Davis had sought $500,000 in damages from the city in his civil suit that claimed he was fired for calling Mayor Jeff Hardin on April 17, 2006, about his opposition to a proposed ordinance. The eight-member jury found that Davis' call disrupted or impeded his department's operations -- or had the potential to -- when he spoke to the mayor during his five-minute call. The call was also a violation of the city's policies, it found.
"We are happy and relieved, and we feel like justice was done," said attorney Jim McKoon, who represents the city. "We wish Mr. Davis well."
Davis' suit was the third such litigation McKoon and Phenix City Attorney Jimmy Graham have successfully defended.
"We've got the proper rules and regulations in place," Graham said. "The people who don't follow those rules and regulations go someplace else to work."
Thursday was the last day of testimony in the four-day trial that pitted First Amendment rights against following the chain of command. Attorney Doug Steele, who represents Davis, said while he was disappointed in the verdict, he respects the jury's decision, though his client may appeal to the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals.
"We can hold our heads up high," he said. "He stood up for what he believed in."
McKoon, arguing for Phenix City Manager "Bubba" Roberts and Fire Chief Wallace Hunter, said Davis failed to follow the chain of command when he called Hardin about his opposition to a proposed ordinance about extending the probationary time for new hires.
It was that phone call that led to Davis' termination after almost eight years with the city's fire department. Davis said he called the mayor on an off day, was acting as the president of the local firefighters association and had been told by Hardin about his open-door policy. Davis' termination ultimately led to the civil suit he filed in June 2006 and his trial, which began Monday.
Davis violated city policy and broke the chain of command, McKoon said. The attorney said Davis' case was about who would run the fire department -- the chief or a "gang." Referencing a number of times Davis had been disciplined starting in March 2005, McKoon questioned why Davis would speak with a reporter in September, a month after being disciplined twice.
One of those times was for ordering a firefighter to do 25 pushups for failing to wear his proper shirt -- an order that McKoon said Davis lacked the authority to give.
"I'm not picking on him," McKoon said. "That's his record. I didn't make these statements."
Steele told jurors to focus on the evidence, not McKoon's words in his closing argument. McKoon referenced questions the jury would have to answer during their deliberations, and Steele spoke about those questions, including whether Davis' call to Hardin disrupted or impeded the fire department's operations or had that potential.
"Was a five-minute phone call to the mayor going to bring this department to its knees?" Steele asked.
Both McKoon and Steele said Davis, along with several firefighters, spoke with a newspaper reporter in September 2005, which led to the publication of a story about problems in the fire department. Steele argued that city policy didn't restrict firefighters' access to the media, though he said Hunter said in his deposition that his employees had no right to speak to reporters.
Steele also said the city's chain of command policy ultimately led employees to the city manager and the city council. However, the attorney said Hunter called the council a place employees would never reach.
"The mayor had an open-door policy," Steele said. "He said he had it."
McKoon, however, said Hardin told firefighters about his open-door policy while running a campaign for a political post, and that the last time Davis would have heard about it was January 2005. Circumventing Hunter by going to the mayor would mean the fire chief couldn't do his job, McKoon argued.
"Is (city policy) any good if you can pick and choose when you're on or off duty?" McKoon questioned. "If that's true, then we just need to tear it up and throw it away. This whole case is not about wrapping somebody in the flag and freedom. This is about a man who had chance after chance after chance and he finally ran out of chances."
Written by Columbus Ledger-Enquirer
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