RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A Richmond judge has ruled the city is protected from a $5 million wrongful termination lawsuit from its former interim police chief, but he left the door open for a potential case.
Richmond Circuit Court Judge W. Reilly Marchant didn’t appear convinced that William “Jody” Blackwell’s lawsuit against the city had no merit, as the city’s attorney argued in court. Marchant did question Blackwell’s attorney on how the case would survive the city’s challenge on sovereign immunity grounds.
“How do you get around sovereign immunity?” Marchant asked Blackwell’s lawyer, Scott Crowley, during the March 15 hearing.
Citing two previous cases, Crowley argued that cities have immunity protections for actions deemed a benefit to the public but not actions that only benefit the government. Marchant told Crowley and the city’s attorney to submit letters to support their positions before he made a ruling on the city’s challenge.
“Sovereign immunity, as it relates to municipalities, is extended to intentional torts committed by its actors,” Marchant wrote in a March 24 order. “Thus, alleged intentional torts would only survive a plea of sovereign immunity if the suit was against the individuals, not the City.”
In most cases, governments and their employees are protected against civil lawsuits by sovereign immunity. But the doctrine offers various levels of protection and can be waived by a government.
While Marchant granted the city’s demurrer, a motion asking for a dismissal, to the claims in Blackwell’s lawsuit, the judge made way for Richmond’s ex-interim police chief to continue with his case.
Marchant has given Blackwell’s attorney until April 8 to submit an amended complaint if they believe “a good cause of action can be sufficiently plead.” Crowley told 8News on March 31 that he intends to file an amended complaint but did not share the individual defendants he planned on naming.
In his lawsuit against the city, Blackwell claims that Mayor Levar Stoney asked him to order his officers to guard Confederate monuments in June 2020 as crews removed them. Blackwell alleges he warned Stoney that such an order would violate state law and that he was ultimately fired for refusing.
The city responded in a filing that Blackwell made “factually and legally deficient” claims in his lawsuit. The attorney for the city argued in court that Blackwell and Richmond police officers wouldn’t have been exposed “to criminal liability,” as Blackwell said, if officers guarded the monuments in June 2020.
Crowley argued that such an order would have violated a law prohibiting authorities from disturbing or interfering with any monuments or memorials, which remained in effect until July 2020. Marchant didn’t seem convinced by the city’s argument in court, but ruled the sovereign immunity protections shielded the city.
Blackwell resigned as Richmond’s interim police chief after less than two weeks and returned to his previous position as major. Seven months later he was fired by Chief Gerald Smith, who the city said did not know about Blackwell’s claims at the time.
The lawsuit alleges the city breached its contract with Blackwell after he was fired, but Marchant questioned in court whether the letter signed by the city’s interim chief administrative officer that Crowley presented qualified as a formal contract.
The city’s attorney argued it did not and Marchant agreed, granting its demurrer on the breach of contract claim.
Blackwell claims in the lawsuit that he was only 18 months away from securing his full pension before he was fired. His lawsuit seeks $5 million in compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorney fees and any other costs the court deems proper. He is also seeking to be reinstated.