Second judge recuses himself from $5 million lawsuit over firing of Richmond’s former interim police chief

Richmond

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — A second judge has recused himself from presiding over a $5 million wrongful termination lawsuit brought by Richmond’s former interim police chief against the city.

William “Jody” Blackwell, who served as Richmond’s interim police chief for 11 days, claims in the lawsuit that he was fired for refusing to follow Mayor Levar Stoney’s request to have Richmond police officers stand guard during the removal of the city’s Confederate monuments. 

The city’s legal team filed a demurrer, a motion pleading for a dismissal, arguing the city is immune from the suit and accusing Blackwell of making “factually and legally deficient” claims.

A hearing for the city’s motion for dismissal was scheduled for Nov. 22, but Richmond Circuit Court Judge David Eugene Cheek Sr. recused himself from the case hours before it was set to take place, according to Blackwell’s attorney. Eight days later, the judge appointed to replace Cheek did the same thing.

“I, Phillip L. Hairston, am of the opinion I am so situated in respect to the case as to render it improper for me to preside and therefore, I recuse myself,” Judge Hairston wrote in a Nov. 30 order that was nearly identical to one filed by Cheek.

It remains unclear why Cheek and Hairston recused themselves. Neither responded to requests seeking comment on Friday.

With the case involving the city and a former police chief, 8News legal analyst Russ Stone said he can envision a path where a judge from another jurisdiction is appointed to oversee the lawsuit.

“It doesn’t happen often, but it does happen,” Stone, an attorney, said on Friday. “If all the judges believe they can’t preside over the case because of a connection, and when it comes to a former police chief that could happen, then another judge could take over.”

The case has been directed to Judge W. Reilly Marchant, the chief judge of Richmond’s Circuit Court, “for further handling pursuant to the Judicial Qualification Policy,” according to Hairston’s order.

A hearing for the city’s demurrer has not been rescheduled.

Blackwell was appointed as interim chief after the mayor asked Chief William Smith to resign in the wake of clashes between protesters and officers during civil unrest that summer following the police killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

In the lawsuit, filed in July, Blackwell alleges he was fired by Chief Gerald Smith seven months after returning to his old position as major “in retaliation for refusing to carry out Mayor Stoney’s illegal order” to have officers stationed around the city’s Confederate monuments as contractors removed them.

Blackwell’s lawsuit asserts complying with the request would have exposed Blackwell and RPD officers “to criminal liability.”

Attorneys representing the city believe the civil suit should be thrown out, citing protections under sovereign immunity for the city. In the demurrer filed in August, the city’s legal counsel argues Blackwell does not have sufficient evidence to establish he was terminated because of his refusal “to engage in the alleged criminal activity.”

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.

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