Where a probationary employee in the sheriff’s department argued he was entitled to a hearing after he was fired for falsifying official records, but also admitted that he did not accurately complete certain entries in his surveillance logs, and it was undisputed that he was terminated on that basis, there was no need for a hearing because there were no disputed facts.
The plaintiff was employed by the Arlington County sheriff’s department beginning on June 3, 2019. As a condition of his employment, he was in a probationary status, pending the completion of his training. Defendant Beth Arthur is the elected sheriff of Arlington County, Virginia.
As part of his probationary employment, Dalzell was scheduled to train at the Arlington county jail from Feb. 16, 2020, through March 2020. He was expected to observe the jail cells that he was assigned to monitor during a shift and document that tour in an officer activity log.
On March 28, 2020, Dalzell failed to fully observe all the jail cells on his surveillance round. Nevertheless, Dalzell marked in the officer activity log that he had conducted the surveillance tour. During an internal affairs investigation, Dalzell admitted that he did not properly perform surveillance rounds due to “pure laziness” and that he failed to fully complete several surveillance rounds.
On April 22, 2020, Arthur sent a letter to Dalzell terminating Dalzell’s employment for falsifying office records. Dalzell, through counsel, requested an administrative hearing with respect to his termination, which Arthur declined.
Dalzell then filed this action, alleging that defendants violated his right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment, in violation of 42 USC § 1983 and that Arthur’s termination letter constituted defamation per se under Virginia law. Defendants have filed a motion for summary judgment.
An administrative hearing in connection with Dalzell’s termination was not constitutionally required since there was no underlying factual dispute concerning the basis for his dismissal. Given the absence of a factual dispute as to whether plaintiff accurately completed certain entries in his surveillance logs, and the undisputed fact that he was terminated on that basis, there was no factual issue that needed to be resolved through a hearing.
Plaintiff claims that a hearing was required given the training he was not given and other issues that had arisen in his employment. But none of those issues were material to whether the plaintiff failed to record accurately whether he had conducted his rounds as required. In short, none of the issues that plaintiff hoped to raise at an administrative hearing were material to whether he had falsified the surveillance logs, the grounds for termination.
Plaintiff contends that he was defamed when his termination letter stated that he had falsified the surveillance logs. The core of that claim is the contention that the statement that he falsified records implies that he intentionally falsified records and that there is a genuine issue in that regard since he claims he did not intentionally fail to accurately complete the surveillance, but rather did so because of a lack of training and because he was lazy, not mendacious.
However, the termination letter that contains the challenged statement does not read that Dalzell “intentionally falsified office records.” The word “falsify” in the context used in the termination letter simply implies that a person took some action, and that the action resulted in a false document. There is no genuine dispute that Dalzell filled out the officer activity log and that the officer activity log was false. Therefore, the statement that Dalzell “falsified Official records” is a true statement and cannot be the basis for defamation or due process claims.
Regarding the publication element, plaintiff points to the statement in the sheriff’s office policy that his personnel file may be shown to future employers as an adequate basis upon which to establish the publication element and on that basis contends that there is likely a genuine factual dispute as to whether the employee record would be made public. The court has found no support under Virginia law for this contention and concludes that the mere prospect of a publication does not establish the publication element of a Virginia common law defamation claim.
Defendants’ motion for summary judgment granted.
Dalzell v. Arlington County Sheriff’s Office, Case No. 1:22-cv-407, Dec. 19, 2022. EDVA at Alexandria (Trenga). VLW 022-3-556. 9 pp.