State Appeals Court agrees Highway Patrol lacked ‘just cause’ to fire trooper

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  • The N.C. Court of Appeals has affirmed a decision allowing a fired state trooper to get his job back. Judges agreed that the State Highway Patrol lacked "just cause" to fire Trooper Joe Locklear.
  • An administrative law judge ruled that Locklear should be reinstated, demoted, and forced to serve a five-day suspension in connection with the 2020 incident that led to his dismissal.

The N.C. Court of Appeals has upheld a ruling allowing a fired state trooper to get his job back. The unanimous decision affirms that the State Highway Patrol lacked just cause to fire Trooper Joe Locklear in 2021.

Administrative Law Judge Michael Byrne ruled in Locklear’s favor in May 2022.

Byrne “did not err,” wrote Appeals Court Judge Julee Flood. “ALJ Byrne’s binding findings of fact support his conclusion that Respondent lacked just cause in its termination of Petitioner from the SHP, and we must affirm.”

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.

Byrne ruled 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 appealed Byrne’s ruling. The case attracted attention from the group Professional Fire Fighters and Paramedics of North Carolina, which filed a brief in the case. The group urged Appeals Court judges to uphold Byrne’s 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.

Judges Hunter Murphy and Fred Gore supported Flood’s decision. It’s an unpublished opinion, so the case has limited value as a precedent.