Will Former Edmond Cop File Wrongful Termination Suit?

Former Edmond police officer Benjamin Northcutt, acquitted last week of charges against him.

Former Edmond police officer Benjamin Northcutt, acquitted last week of charges against him.

Former Edmond police officer Benjamin Northcutt reportedly plans to file a $1 million wrongful termination lawsuit against the City of Edmond.

A jury acquitted Northcutt last week of a felony charge of stealing money from the Edmond Police Department evidence room. Northcutt may have a good case on his hands. But it may not be a slam dunk.

Northcutt, 39, served as an Edmond officer for 6½ years, until the department terminated him in March 2011. The next month he was charged with felony grand larceny in Oklahoma County District Court.

The incident began when Edmond officers seized $8,000 in an August 2010 drug raid. The money was entered into the EPD evidence room that night, but the next morning the money was gone. Although the EPD had no direct evidence that Northcutt stole the money, an investigation concluded he was to blame, and they fired him.

Prosecutors barely managed to convince a judge to let them try their felony case against Northcutt. Okla­homa County Spe­cial Judge D. Fred Doak deter­mined that there was enough prob­a­ble cause to allow the case to go to trial, but he said the cir­cum­stan­tial evi­dence against Northcutt was “thin.”

More than three years after Northcutt’s arrest, the case finally went to trial last week. It lasted less than two days. The prosecution called four witnesses. Defense counsel was so unimpressed with the state’s case that he did not call a single witness. The jury deliberated for 30 minutes before returning its not guilty verdict.

Of course, the whole thing has turned Northcutt’s life upside down. With his reputation damaged, he has been unable to find work in law enforcement. He felt so scorned in Oklahoma City and Edmond that the Oklahoma native was compelled to move to Texas, his attorney said.

Lawsuit?

Various news reports say that Northcutt and his attorney plan to sue the City of Edmond. KOCO reported that Northcutt’s attorney is planning a wrongful termination suit. The Edmond Sun reported that a suit is planned, but did not specify what kind of suit.

What are Northcutt’s chances in a wrongful termination case against the city?

Oklahoma is an “employment at will” state, which means an employer can fire you without a reason, unless the firing would violate the law. For example, it’s against the law to fire a person because of their race, age or gender. It is also against the law to fire a person because of a disability or because she is pregnant.

However, most police officers in Oklahoma are members of the Fraternal Order of Police, and their employment is governed by their union contract. A lawsuit could be based on violation of that contract.

I have never had occasion to read the Edmond police officers’ collective bargaining agreement with the city. I expect the contract has a provision for a terminated officer to file a grievance, if the officer believes he or she was terminated unfairly. I also expect the contract stipulates that such a grievance shall be settled in arbitration, rather than in a courtroom. I have not seen any news reports that Northcutt ever filed a grievance or that his case has been arbitrated.

It will be interesting to see if a lawsuit is actually filed, and if so, what kind of petition it will be.

Although a wrongful termination suit faces some obstacles in an at-will state, if you have a complaint based on discrimination because of your race, age, gender, disability or pregnancy, you may have a strong case and may be able to recover back pay, punitive damages and reinstatement to your job.

For a free consultation about your wrongful termination or discrimination case, give us a call at 405-235-1551, or shoot me an email at cth@hasbrooklaw.com, or use our online Contact Form. We are happy to review the facts of your situation and tell you whether we believe you have good grounds for a petition.