Appeals Court rules for Mocksville in COVID-related dispute with fired police officer

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  • The state Court of Appeals has ruled in favor of Mocksville in the town's legal dispute with a fired police officer.
  • Officer Justin Sloan argued that he was fired in 2020 after he filed a complaint with the state Labor Department about being forced to work while sick with COVID-19.
  • The town responded that Sloan was fired because he released information about an internal investigation.

A unanimous state Court of Appeals panel has ruled in favor of Mocksville in the town’s legal dispute with a fired police officer. The officer had claimed he was dismissed after filing a complaint that he was forced to work while sick with COVID-19.

Former Officer Justin Sloan offered a plausible case of “retaliatory discrimination, but failed to meet his burden to show the Town’s proffered legitimate reason for terminating him was pretext for retaliation,” wrote Judge Julee Flood.

Sloan, a Mocksville police officer since 2017, attempted to call out sick in June 2020 because of an upset stomach and fever. Sloan argued that a police sergeant pressured him to work. After working four days, Sloan learned that he tested positive for COVID-19, according to Flood’s synopsis of the case.

“While in quarantine, Sloan learned Department Chief Patrick Reagan … and Town Manager Matt Settlemyer … were denying to the public and the Department that Sloan had tested positive for Covid-19,” Flood wrote. “On 3 July 2020, an anonymous Facebook page with the pseudonym ‘Joshua Morris William’ posted a photograph of a Department-wide, 28 June 2020 email Chief Reagan sent warning employees against discussing any other employee’s medical status.”

“The post alleged the Town did not want anyone to know Department employees had tested positive for Covid-19 and stated, ‘the truth will come out,’” the opinion continued. “On 7 July 2020, the same Facebook page included a second post, showing the letter Sloan received from Rowan County Public Health, informing Sloan of his positive Covid-19 test.”

Two days later, Sloan filed an anonymous complaint with the state Labor Department “alleging the Department forced him to work while sick during a pandemic and failed to contact trace or alert people of a possible exposure to Covid-19.” Town officials learned about the complaint within a week.

Reagan launched an internal investigation of how the information reached the anonymous Facebook page. Sloan signed a form agreeing not to discuss the investigation with anyone until interviews were completed, yet he later admitted talking to the people he identified during the course of his interview.

The police department fired Sloan in August 2020 “for insubordination based on Sloan’s disclosure of information related to the investigation, which Sloan had agreed to keep confidential.”

Sloan filed a form with the state Labor Department alleging retaliatory employment discrimination based on his complaint. He later sued the town in Superior Court. In October 2022, a judge ruled in favor of Mocksville.

Appellate judges accepted Sloan’s argument about possible retaliation.

“Here, there is sufficient evidence to make an inference that the Town was aware Sloan filed the [Labor Department] Complaint,” Flood wrote. “Even though the … Complaint was anonymous, NCDOL provided the Town with notice that a complaint had been filed by an employee who attempted to call out of work sick on 19 June 2020, was denied leave and forced to work due to staff shortages, became progressively sicker, worked four more shifts through 24 June 2020, and eventually tested positive for Covid-19. The undisputed facts show Sloan attempted to call out sick on 19 June 2020; was denied leave based on staff shortages; worked his shifts on 20, 21, 24, and 25 June 2020; and ultimately tested positive for Covid-19 on 27 June 2020.”

Yet the Appeals Court also accepted Mocksville’s response.

“The Town argues Sloan was not terminated because he filed the … Complaint, but because he disclosed confidential information about the Department’s investigation,” Flood wrote. “To support this argument, the Town submitted an affidavit signed by Settlemyer, which stated Sloan was terminated for insubordination pursuant to section 5.60 of the Policy. Section 5.60 of the Policy states, in pertinent part, ‘[e]mployees shall not be insubordinate. Insubordination is disrespect toward a supervisor, open defiance, or the refusal to obey any lawful order or directive of a supervisor in a timely and satisfactory manner.’”

“According to the Town, Sloan violated this section when he disclosed information about the investigation after receiving a ‘directive of a supervisor’ to keep the information confidential,” the opinion continued. “Settlemyer and Chief Reagan both stated in affidavits that Sloan did not show a lack of remorse for disclosing information about the investigation or show any concern.”

Mocksville “has demonstrated a legitimate nondiscriminatory ground for terminating Sloan,” Flood wrote.

Chief Judge Donna Stroud and Judge Michael Stading joined Flood’s opinion. It’s listed as an unpublished opinion, which means it has little value as a precedent for future cases.