(CN) – A federal judge in Norfolk, Va., rejected a bid by six jailhouse nurses to have their security clearance restored while they continue to press their lawsuit against the sheriff who had them strip searched.
In April 2011, Sheriff Bill Watson received information that unidentified Portsmouth, Va. jail staff members were bringing contraband into the facility. Based on this information, he ordered nine staff members to undergo a strip search and visual body cavity search.
The judgment is unclear whether the searches found any contraband, but all of the employees kept their security clearances – a pre requisite of their employment – until three days after they sued the Sheriff seeking punitive damages for unlawful search and an injunction prohibiting strip searches on employees without individualized suspicion.
In an amended complaint, the six plaintiffs said their security clearances were revoked by Watson in retaliation for filing a lawsuit. In the complaint the plaintiffs, all employees of Correct Care, which provides health services to the jail, requested reinstatement their security clearances so that they could go back to work.
But U.S. District Judge Mark Davis was unwilling to overturn the Sheriff’s decision without clear evidence of his wrongdoing, and denied the nurses motion for a preliminary injunction.
Although government employees generally relinquish certain free speech rights in their official capacity, the court found that the nurses’ complaint was not just a personal grievance. “(T)he content of the plaintiffs’ speech implicated the public interest because it alleges the broad implementation of a type of intrusive search that, if constitutionally unfounded, could significantly impact the public’s viewpoint regarding the elected Sheriff’s judgment and exercise of his broad powers,” Davis said.
“The fact that the Injunction plaintiffs are ‘public employees’ working at a jail for a law enforcement officer cannot operate as a universal trump card over such public employees’ First Amendment rights … However, the powerful public interests in a safe and secure jail, and the difficult discretionary decisions that are inherent in overseeing such a facility, acts to some slight degree as a thumb on the scale in favor of the public employer,” he continued.
In a 60-page opinion, Davis determined that “second-guessing” the sheriff’s decision would displace local authority and disturb the status quo, a highly disfavored type of injunctive relief.
“Although Sheriff Watson did not provide a clear explanation as to why the Injunction Plaintiffs’ security clearances were revoked after the lawsuits were filed, as opposed to after some of the allegations of contractors’ misconduct were substantiated, the Sheriff was unequivocal in his contention that some of the Injunction Plaintiffs were in fact responsible for bringing illegal contraband into the jail. Injunction plaintiffs did not offer any evidence challenging the accuracy of such assertion,” Davis said.
In addition, “Sheriff Watson testified that the plaintiffs work unsupervised with inmates and that, in light of the litigation, he no longer felt that the Injunction Plaintiffs could be trusted to work alone … Sheriff Watson explained that some of the inmates that accused the nurses of importing contraband into the jail were still housed at the jail and that it would not be appropriate to let the nurses interact, unsupervised, with these individuals because the nurses might learn their identities and retaliate against them,” the judge continued.
Davis concluded, “Accordingly, the nature of the Injunction plaintiffs’ employment in a jail environment, the lack of any rebuttal evidence challenging the Sheriff’s testimony, and the extreme nature of the mandatory relief requested in light of the Sheriff’s sworn testimony that he had credible evidence implicating some of the injunction plaintiffs, the court finds the injunction plaintiffs have not demonstrated that they will likely prevail on the balancing.”
The court noted that its ruling in no way suggests that the plaintiffs will not prevail in their substantive case.
The six plaintiffs who sought a preliminary injunction are Nan Vollette, Angelene Coleman, Yolanda Vines, Hashena Hockaday, Verita Braswell, and Emma Floyd-Sharp.