Sheriff’s Testimony Shows Wrong in Firings

     (CN) – A Virginia sheriff must reinstate jail employees whom he fired one day after they sued him over the strip searches to which they were subjected, a federal judge ruled.
     The Portsmouth City Jail conducted employee strip searches on April 22, 2011, after Sheriff Bill Watson received information that unidentified persons were bringing contraband into the facility.
     Nine staffers who underwent strip searches and visual body cavity searches filed suit about a year later and said they lost their jobs the next business day after filing suit.
     Though the 2011 search had turned up contraband – three cellphones and one jump drive – on four of the plaintiffs, everyone allegedly kept their security clearances until they filed suit.
     In addition to claims from all nine that they were subjected to an unreasonable search under the Fourth Amendment, six of the plaintiffs alleged First Amendment retaliation.
     U.S. District Judge Mark Davis severed these retaliation claims and refused in July 2012 to restore the security clearances of these six plaintiffs.
     As the unreasonable search claims went on to a jury trial, Davis conducted a bench trial on the retaliation claims. The jury ultimately found that all nine had voluntarily consented to be strip-searched when they signed a security orientation form expressly stating that the employee is subject to search at any time. Davis ruled for the First Amendment retaliation plaintiffs in April 2013.
     In an explanation of his findings Friday, the judge noted that the employees filed suit both to win damages and “to ensure that the events, as they alleged them, never happened again, to anyone.” (Italics in original.)
     Therefore, “the form of the speech was public, both through a federally filed lawsuit and injunction plaintiffs’ contact with the media,” Davis wrote.
     Sheriff Watson’s testimony at the bench trial “revealed that he felt betrayed when he heard about injunction plaintiffs’ lawsuits,” the 54-page opinion states. “Specifically, Sheriff Watson stated, under oath: ‘All I know is it was the lawsuit I think that pushed me over the edge.'”
     Davis found “that such candid statements are an admission that adverse employment action was taken against the injunction plaintiffs in response to their exercise of their First Amendment constitutional rights to free speech and to petition the government for redress of grievances.”
     He noted that Watson also said “it’s not a problem” to restore the security clearances of the retaliation plaintiffs.
     Davis ordered reinstatement of their security clearances, noting that “by the Sheriff’s own admission, reinstatement of such security clearances would not create any security concern at the Portsmouth Jail.”

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