Lawsuit over squirrel-shooting cop's dismissal dismissed

Nathan Baker • Updated Mar 17, 2016 at 5:38 PM

A federal judge proved a tough nut to crack for a former Mountain City police officer fired after pepper-spraying and shooting at a squirrel in a Dollar General Store in 2013.

Officer Jody Putnam’s lawsuit, claiming the town and police department violated his rights under the Sixth, Fourth and 14th constitutional amendments and asking for $2 million in damages, was dismissed Feb. 19 by U.S. Magistrate Judge Clifton Corker.

In Corker’s written opinion, which included a colorful description of the Sept. 27, 2013, attempted squirrel shooting that quoted and cited Ray Stevens’ satirical song “Mississippi Squirrel Revival,” the judge ruled Putnam was an at-will employee of Mountain City, and his firing, whether because of his breach of the department’s firearms policy or his refusal to file a weapons discharge report — both of which Putnam admitted — was constitutional.

The judge rejected the former officer’s insistence that he had a property interest in his job. Public employees have property interests in their employment when they have a written or implied contract defining the terms of employment or a law gives the employee a property interest.

If an employee has a property interest, the Fourth Amendment protects that property from undue seizure, and the due process clause of the 14th Amendment affirms the employee’s right to notification if he or she going to be fired and a chance to defend his or her employment at a hearing.

Putnam said he requested a “public name clearing” before the Mountain City Board of Mayor and Aldermen after the board unanimously voted to fire him, but was not afforded one. The town disputed that claim in its response to Putnam’s suit, and board minutes for the town’s December 2013 meeting show a hearing was held, but neither Putnam nor an attorney or other representative attended.

Though Putnam referenced state laws that he claimed prohibited law enforcement officers from being at-will employees, Corker said the statutory civil service protections only applied to officers whose employers have created a property interest in their positions.

“Nothing in any of Mountain City’s documents or Tennessee state law provide any justification for treating Putnam as anything other than an at-will employee,” the judge wrote.

Putnam’s largest damages claim, $1.5 million, stemmed from the assertion that the town acted recklessly and released information to the media that not only ruined his career, but also his livelihood. He also asked for $260,000 in earnings for the remaining 13 years of his law enforcement career and $240,000 in retirement if he lived the average life span expectancy for men.

In his claim, Putnam said that after he was fired, the town gave accounts about the incident “to several press outlets and ruined any chance of (Putnam) recovering his 17-year career. (Putnam) could not get a job with any law enforcement agency in the country; due to the defendants making this event a national news story.”

Corker noted that while that may be true, it doesn’t set aside that his dismissal was appropriate based on the town’s assertion Putnam improperly discharged his firearm in a store and he failed to file the appropriate administrative reports for discharging his service weapon.

Press Staff Writer Becky Campbell contributed to this article.

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