NC Appeals Court case of fired state trooper attracts attention from firefighters, paramedics

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  • A group representing N.C. firefighters and paramedics is interested in the outcome of a case at the N.C. Court of Appeals involving a fired state trooper.
  • An administrative law judge ruled that the trooper should be reinstated to his job. The State Highway Patrol lacked "just cause" to fire him.

A group representing N.C. firefighters and paramedics is watching closely as the N.C. Court of Appeals considers the case of a fired state trooper. An administrative law judge ruled in favor of trooper Joe Locklear in 2022. The judge said the Highway Patrol lacked “just cause” to fire Locklear.

The group Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina filed paperwork Wednesday to present a friend-of-the-court brief in the case. The group supports the ruling favoring Locklear.

Locklear, a master trooper, joined the Highway Patrol in 2006. He lost his job because of an incident in August 2020.

While patrolling N.C. 72, Locklear noticed a driver wearing no seatbelt, with a passenger apparently drinking a beer, according to court filings. Pulling up alongside the car, Locklear gave the driver a verbal warning and allowed him to drive away.

Turning the patrol car around, Locklear noticed a bag on the side of the road. He retrieved the bag, which contained “a felony amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia, cash, jewelry, and other miscellaneous items.” Locklear left the scene with the bag but later returned and threw the bag into the woods.

That evening, the driver called in a “citizen complaint” about his interaction with Locklear. Questioned by a sergeant, Locklear failed to tell the truth about the incident. He later admitted to “misleading” the sergeant.

Locklear’s conduct violated Highway Patrol policies regarding unbecoming conduct, truthfulness, neglect of duty, and unacceptable personal conduct, according to court filings from the N.C. Department of Public Safety.

The Patrol dismissed Locklear in October 2020, with a final decision confirming his firing in February 2021.

Judge Michael Byrne ruled in May 2022 that Locklear’s offenses did not result in “just cause” for him to be fired. Byrne noted Locklear’s positive employment record dating back to 2006. The judge ruled that Locklear should be reinstated, demoted from master trooper to trooper, and forced to face a five-day suspension without pay.

“This is no light discipline,” Byrne wrote. “It reflects the review of the Tribunal, and our appellate courts, that Truthfulness, Unbecoming Conduct, and Neglect of Duty are serious issues. However, it reflects consideration and balancing of the equities. … It includes consideration of [the] requirement of equity and fairness ‘to the employee.’”

DPS is appealing Byrne’s ruling. The firefighters and paramedics hope Appeals Court judges will uphold the decision.

“The issues before this Court are vitally important for a significant portion of the membership of the PFFPNC, as well as for other public employees of municipalities of North Carolina,” according to Wednesday’s motion. “While those employees are not covered by the State Personnel Act as the Petitioner in this case is, there are a number of cities that have Civil Service Acts that do provide those city’s employees with just cause protections. Cities with such acts include at least Charlotte, Raleigh, Wilmington, Asheville, and Statesville.”

“This Court’s decision regarding the standards that apply to determine whether just cause exists for the discipline meted out to employees with just cause protections will have impact on those municipal employees,” the group argued. “In particular, the decision of the Court in this case could be of great significance to municipal employees protected by Civil Service Acts exercising their rights of appeal to our appellate courts.”

The firefighters and paramedics point to “substantial precedent” that “the issue of just cause is a question of law subject to de novo review on appeal,” according to the court filing.

“De novo” means that a court conducts a new review of an issue. It does not defer to a lower court or a government agency’s decision-making process.

“That precedent establishes that just cause is a flexible concept involving issues of fairness and equity to the employee, requiring an analysis of many factors in determining what discipline is ‘just,’’” the firefighter and paramedics group argued.

The Department of Public Safety will have an opportunity to reply to Locklear’s arguments in the case, filed Tuesday.

Then the Court of Appeals will decide whether to proceed with oral arguments before a three-judge panel.