RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Richmond judge has rejected the city’s latest effort to have a $5 million wrongful termination lawsuit against Mayor Levar Stoney and Police Chief Gerald Smith thrown out.
Richmond’s former interim police chief William “Jody” Blackwell filed the lawsuit against Stoney and Smith claiming he was fired by the current police chief out of retaliation for refusing an order from the mayor.
The ruling in Richmond Circuit Court Thursday moves the case forward, but what comes next is still unclear as the city could settle or go to trial.
Attorneys representing Stoney and Smith filed a motion to have the case dismissed that argued the mayor and chief, like the city, were immune from liability because they were not “employers” under the Virginia code prohibiting retaliatory actions against employees.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant denied the effort, but the city asked the court to reconsider the ruling citing a federal court decision in a case involving a fired state employee who investigated the Virginia Parole Board.
Judge Marchant denied the city’s request Thursday, reaffirming the court’s ruling that “official immunity cannot bar an intentional tort claim brought by a Plaintiff against individuals acting on behalf of a municipality.”
The Oct. 6 court order denies the city’s argument that a recent federal court opinion in a civil suit from a former state investigator who looked into misconducts claims against the former parole board “sheds light on the proper construction” of the state code.
In that case, the federal court ruled State Inspector General Michael Westfall did not act “directly or indirectly” in an employer’s interest in the firing of Jennifer Moschetti because Virginia did not fall under the statute’s definition of an “employer” and is immune under sovereign immunity.
But Judge Marchant rejected the idea that the federal court ruling had an impact on Blackwell’s argument.
“The fact that the ’employer,’ who the individual acted on behalf of, is immune from liability does not make that employer any less of an ’employer.’ The statute gives no consideration to the effect of liability in its definition of ’employer,'” Marchant wrote in his order.
“The Court finds that clearly these individual Defendants were acting in the interest of the City when they allegedly wrongfully terminated Plaintiff, and the fact that the City is immune from liability is not a consideration in that finding.”
Stoney and Smith are being sued by Blackwell, a former Richmond police major tapped by Stoney to be interim police chief in June 2020 after the mayor asked the chief at the time to resign following clashes between officers and protesters during the civil unrest that summer.
Blackwell served as chief for 11 days before Smith assumed the role. He was fired seven months later by chief Smith as “retaliation,” Blackwell claims in the suit, for not complying with an order as interim chief from Stoney to have officers stationed around the city’s Confederate monuments as contractors removed them.