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Hill v. City of Pontotoc

filed as corrected: June 2, 1993.

RICKEY HILL, PLAINTIFF-APPELLEE,
v.
CITY OF PONTOTOC, MISSISSIPPI, ET AL., DEFENDANTS, CITY OF PONTOTOC, MISSISSIPPI, DEFENDANT-APPELLANT.



Appeal from the United States District Court for the Northern District of Mississippi. D.C. DOCKET NUMBER CA-EC90-188-D-D. Mag. Jerry A. Davis

Before King, Higginbotham, and DeMOSS, Circuit Judges.

Author: Higginbotham

HIGGINBOTHAM, Circuit Judge:

Former city fire chief Rickey Hill sued the City of Pontotoc, Mississippi, claiming the City fired him without due process. A jury found for Hill and the district court awarded back pay and front pay, in lieu of reinstatement. The City appeals and we affirm.

I

The City of Pontotoc, Mississippi, hired Rickey Hill as a firefighter in 1978 and promoted him to fire chief in 1986. As fire chief, Hill supervised fireman Lindsey Sparks. Hill clashed with Sparks, reporting to City officials that Sparks was dishonest and unreliable. The City transferred Sparks to its gas department in 1989. Six months later, on May 2, 1990, Sparks returned to the fire department to fill a vacancy. There was mediate trouble. A fight broke out at city hall between Sparks and Hill. Hill claims that Sparks started the fight by first insulting and then physically attacking him. Hill maintains that he struck back in self defense. The mayor witnessed the fight before it was broken up.

Within a week, the City's Board of Aldermen discussed discharging Hill and Sparks. Upon advice of counsel, the Board notified both men of a hearing to determine disciplinary action regarding the "incident." At the hearing, Hill presented his version of the fight. An alderman then questioned Hill about the attitude of the department and how well Hill got along with volunteer firemen. Hill replied that he got along fine with them. The alderman stated at the hearing that Hill's ability to get along with the volunteers concerned him and would have a bearing on his decision. Sparks was, of course, a city employee, not a volunteer fireman. The Board excluded Hill from the hearing while Sparks spoke. Sparks claimed that Hill had terrorized Sparks' family and set a fire at their home. After hearing Hill and Sparks, the Board voted to fire them both. The alderman testified at trial that volunteers had complained to him about Hill. Hill testified that he was unaware of any problems with the volunteers. Hill stated that he could have rebutted these charges if he had been notified of them.

Hill sued the City and Board members alleging a denial of due process and that his discharge violated the terms of the City's Handbook. In November 1991, District Judge Davidson granted a partial summary judgment in favor of defendants and delineated the issues remaining for jury trial.

Judge Davidson granted summary judgment to the City on Hill's state law claim.*fn1 The court found that the City had a justifiable reason for discharging Hill, regardless of Hill's assertion of self-defense. Specifically, Judge Davidson found that the Handbook's "unbecoming conduct" basis for discharge encompassed fighting; Hill has not appealed this ruling.

The parties then agreed to try the case before Magistrate Judge Davis. The court denied the City's request for an in limine ruling to prevent Hill from asserting that self defense would excuse the fighting or that a fair hearing would not have resulted in his discharge. The magistrate Judge dismissed any substantive due process claim on the basis of Judge Davidson's summary judgment ruling that fighting was a legal basis for discharge under state law.

Hill argued at trial that the City denied his procedural due process right to confront and answer witnesses by failing to give him notice of all of its charges. The jury agreed, finding that in discharging Hill the Board had relied on charges other than fighting. The jury awarded Hill damages for lost income, after being instructed that it could "take into account" whether Hill "would not have been terminated had he been granted his due process rights."

Following trial, the district court denied JNOV but reduced the jury's compensatory damages award from $37,000 to $30,000. Hill agreed to this amendment, conceding that the jury's damage calculation failed to subtract $7,000 of earnings from other work. The district court denied reinstatement persuaded that Hill's return would unduly disrupt the Pontotoc Fire Department, awarding four years of front pay totalling $103,704.00.

II

The City complains on appeal that Magistrate Judge Davis violated the law of the case doctrine by allowing Hill to challenge the outcome of his procedurally deficient hearing. According to the City, Judge Davidson's finding that the City had a justifiable reason for discharging Hill foreclosed a jury ...


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