A federal judge has dismissed the $6.3 million wrongful termination lawsuit against Sheriff Michael Chapman and the county filed by a former detective fired for supporting a different candidate in the Republican primary election for sheriff.
Former detective Mark McCaffrey alleged his right to freedom of expression had been violated by his firing.
McCaffrey’s attorney sought to overcome court precedent which gives elected sheriffs broad authority to fire their deputies, including for political reasons. The court has found that when government employees in policymaking positions have a political disagreement with their elected leader, it can interfere with their ability to do their job, and their protections against politically motivated firing are moot. Because sheriff’s deputies operate autonomously, the court has found sheriff’s deputies are effectively making policy with their decisions.
McCaffrey was one of a handful of employees not re-sworn at the beginning of the sheriff’s second term in 2015. At the time, he was the lead investigator in the ongoing case of Braulio M. Castillo, one of Loudoun’s most high-profile murder cases in recent years, causing consternation to county prosecutors. He was subsequently hired by Commonwealth’s Attorney Jim Plowman until Castillo’s case ended in a conviction.
Attorney Robert Cynkar argued that McCaffrey was relatively low-ranking deputy in a department of more than 600 and was not in a policymaking position. He also argued that an agreement between the county government and sheriff extending county human resources policies to sheriff’s office employees should have afforded McCaffrey additional protections.
The lawsuit also alleged a great number of other bad practices in the department, from mismanaging the budget, to awarding contracts to or hiring campaign contributors, to protecting friends from law enforcement, to poor morale among officers. At the time, Chapman called that “a reprised chronicle of false allegations, conjecture, innuendo and/or grossly exaggerated stories designed to smear me, our staff, and the honor and integrity of the entire Loudoun County Sheriff’s Office” in a statement.
Judge Anthony Trenga found that the same protections for sheriffs other courts have staked out previously apply in this case. In his opinion, Trenga refers to McCaffrey’s original complaint, in which he is described as “the lead detective in complex, high-profile cases, including rape, robbery, and homicide investigations,” with years of experience and authority to directly request the resources of the Commonwealth’s Attorney and the Medical Examiner’s Office.
“A deputy with McCaffrey’s alleged experience, seniority and responsibilities within a sheriff’s office is a policymaker,” Trenga wrote.
That cooperative agreement between Chapman and the Board of Supervisors, which provides most of the sheriff’s budget, was central to McCaffrey’s argument, but ultimately did not factor into the court’s decision. In a footnote in the decision, Trenga wrote that, because McCaffrey had not demonstrated that his rights had been violated, the court “need not consider whether the Cooperative Agreement creates in McCaffrey’s favor rights in addition to those prescribed by the United States and Virginia Constitutions, as any such rights would be contractual in nature” and the federal district court lacks jurisdiction over that dispute.
Chapman said, “the judgment speaks for itself.”
“I’m happy with the outcome, I’m happy that the judicial process worked, and that it reaffirmed the constitutional authority of sheriffs in Virginia,” he said.
McCaffrey’s attorney has not yet returned a phone call requesting comment.