Oakdale police officer Sean Coffey locked his wife in a deep embrace Monday after jurors in a Minneapolis federal court found that Chief Bill Sullivan had violated Coffey's First Amendment rights by punishing him for critical comments he'd made about the department's management.
After speaking out during a union meeting in 2009 for a "vote of no confidence" against the chief, Coffey, 34, of Maplewood, was disciplined and eventually fired. He was reinstated with back pay in 2010 after an arbitration proceeding.
On Monday, a jury of four women and seven men unanimously found that Coffey's comments were motivated by a genuine public concern, and that the disciplinary actions violated his constitutional right to free speech. The jurors found that he would not have been punished but for his comments, and awarded damages of $184,000.
The city of Oakdale had been dismissed as a defendant in the case in March, so the judgment goes against Sullivan personally, said John "Mac" LeFevre Jr., an attorney with Kennedy Graven in Minneapolis, who represents both the chief and the city.
He said insurance would cover defense costs and the judgment, so Oakdale taxpayers won't be on the hook. But the case isn't over yet, he said.
"We don't agree with the verdict. We don't think it's supported by the evidence," LeFevre said. LeFevre said he'd be filing a motion on behalf of Sullivan to overturn the verdict "as a matter of law," and failing that would consider other options, including an appeal to the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.
LeFevre said the city would ultimately pay the damages on behalf of Sullivan if it comes to that. He said he spoke with city officials Tuesday, "and they're fully supportive of the police chief and the police department."
Matthew Morgan, an attorney with Nichols Kaster in Minneapolis who represents Coffey, said he would seek to have Sullivan cover his client's legal expenses.
U.S. District Judge Joan Ericksen rejected his motion for punitive damages, finding that the evidence didn't support a finding that Sullivan had acted out of malice or reckless disregard for Coffey's rights.
Coffey's firing came into public view after some Oakdale police officers accused Sullivan of harassment and alleged that Coffey was the latest victim.
The union that represents most patrol officers, investigators and school resource officers -- Law Enforcement Labor Services Local 197 -- notified the city of a no-confidence vote in Sullivan's leadership.
Sullivan, who joined the Oakdale force in 1988, has denied harassing officers.
He declined to comment Tuesday.-
Morgan said $8,200 would cover the cost of Coffey's disciplinary actions, so the balance of the jury's award was compensation for his emotional distress.
As he left the courtroom with his parents, his wife, Kim, who's also an Oakdale police officer, and her mother, Coffey breathed a huge sigh and wiped away tears.
Dan Browning • 612-673-4493