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Elliott v. Lanham

Supreme Court of Kentucky

February 15, 2018

MARTY ELLIOTT, INDIVIDUALLY AND IN HIS CAPACITY AS BOYLE COUNTY SHERIFF APPELLANT
v.
WARREN LANHAM APPELLEE

         ON REVIEW FROM COURT OF APPEALS CASE NO. 2015-CA-001053 BOYLE CIRCUIT COURT NO. 13-CI-00369

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLANT: Daniel Barry Stilz Lynn Sowards Zellen Kinkead & Stilz, PLLC

          COUNSEL FOR APPELLEE: Elizbeth R. Seif Decamp Talbott Seif P.S.C.

          OPINION

          MINTON JUSTICE.

         REVERSING AND REMANDING WITH INSTRUCTIONS

         We granted discretionary review to determine whether a sheriffs termination of a deputy sheriff is constrained by the procedural due-process protections purportedly afforded to the deputy sheriff under a now-outdated version of KRS 15.520[1]. We hold that KRS 15.520 does not apply in this case to afford Deputy Warren Lanham any due process requirements. Accordingly, we reverse and remand the case to the trial court with direction to enter summary judgment in favor Sheriff Marty Elliott.

         I. FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Warren Lanham was hired as a deputy sheriff in the Boyle County Sheriffs Department in 2002. He was eventually promoted to the post of Chief Deputy Sheriff. During the events at issue in this case, Marty Elliott was the Sheriff of Boyle County.

         On October 1, 2012, Sheriff Elliott received complaints from members of a Boyle County grand jury, relayed to him via oral notification from Boyle Circuit Court Judge Darren Peckler. Those complaints disapproved Chief Deputy Lanham's handling of several criminal investigations. Specifically, the complaints highlighted Chief Deputy Lanham's alleged shoddy investigative work on cases presented to the. grand jury, including the fact that the grand jury felt compelled to return no true bills in cases Chief Deputy Lanham investigated. Additionally, the grand jury recalled a specific Lanham investigation into a makeshift meth lab in which he allegedly blundered, destroying physical evidence of a "pill soak" used to manufacture methamphetamine.

         Because of these complaints, Sheriff Elliott immediately demoted Lanham from Chief Deputy Sheriff to Deputy Sheriff on the same day he received the complaints as relayed by Judge Peckler. On October 10, 2012, after further investigation, Sheriff Elliott suspended Deputy Lanham, delivering him a written confirmation of that suspension on October 15. On that same day, Sheriff Elliott verbally informed Deputy Lanham that he was fired as of that day, but sent a formal letter on October 26, 2012, officially terminating Deputy Lanham's employment effective October 17, 2012.

         Deputy Lanham then sued Sheriff Elliott, in his individual and official capacities, alleging that Sheriff Elliott violated the due-process procedures set forth in KRS 15.520, otherwise known as the Police Officers' Bill of Rights.

         The trial court granted Sheriff Elliott's motion for summary judgment, basing its decision on an unpublished Court of Appeals' decision with similar facts.[2] That case held that in a county, like Boyle County, where there has been no merit review board created by the county's legislative body, deputy sheriffs are at-will employees who are not entitled to an administrative hearing before being discharged. On appeal, the Court of Appeals reversed the ruling of the trial court, finding that KRS 15.520 mandates that a sheriff, like Sheriff Elliott, who elects to receive KLEFP[3] funding is bound by the due-process procedures of that statute. The Court of Appeals remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings applying the statute to the present case.

         II. ANALYSIS

         "Insofar as this case requires us to construe statutory provisions, we do so de novo."[4] The entirety of this case rests on the interplay ...


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