The N.C. Court of Appeals agreed to hear the case of former Sylva police officer Curtis Lambert, forcing another round of courtroom wrangling Feb. 4 with the town. The four-year legal battle stems from his 2014 firing from the force.
Oral arguments are scheduled to be heard before a three-judge panel at the N.C. Central University Law School, where law students will observe as part of their education.
No witnesses will take the stand. The only participants will be combatants’ lawyers – David Sawyer for Lambert and Eric Ridenour for Sylva.
“It will be the two attorneys standing up and presenting their arguments of the appeal and taking questions from the judges,” Sawyer said.
Where the case goes from there depends on the outcome, Sawyer said.
“There is a possibility it could go to the Supreme Court, but that depends on what they decide and how they do it,” he said.
Either side could appeal to the higher court, Sawyer said.
The appellant, Sawyer, will face the panel first, Ridenour said.
“They’ll have about 20 minutes, but the judges can interrupt and start asking questions,” he said.
Citing performance issues, town officials fired Lambert in March 2014, less than a month after he filed as a Republican candidate for Jackson County sheriff. Lambert claims his firing was due to his decision to run.
He initially filed suit in 2015, accusing Sylva of violating his federal and state free-speech rights and North Carolina’s public policy protecting against political coercion.
A judge dismissed the lawsuit in the first trial in May 2016. Sawyer successfully appealed the first ruling against Lambert on the grounds that the case was decided by a judge and not a jury. The Court of Appeals ordered a new trial, which began July 16, 2018, and ended in the town’s favor July 20 after three hours of jury deliberations.
Sawyer in August 2018 filed to again send the case to the Court of Appeals, citing a different issue.
This time around, Sawyer contends Superior Court Judge Bill Coward erred in his jury instructions in the second trial, failing to base a portion as required on federal rules protecting citizens’ civil rights.
“The first count of the complaint was based upon federal civil rights law and we argued that the jury instruction was different than the ones to be used in counts two and three, which were the state law counts,” Sawyer said.
The instruction that Sawyer recommended and submitted to the court was from federal statutes, from the third federal circuit headquartered in Philadelphia.
In his brief to the appeals court, Sawyer is appealing on a “Monell claim,” which would hold that Lambert’s constitutional rights were violated.
“The civil right involved is the right of free expression and free association, and the right to engage in political activity,” the document states. “This included running for sheriff. The question thus becomes whether the chief of police, Davis Woodard, terminated plaintiff at least in part because of his decision to run for sheriff.”
Ridenour believes Judge Coward gave Lambert the most favorable instructions they could have gotten, he said.
“Sawyer’s argument on appeal is that Judge Coward should have given the jury a deprivation of rights instruction to the jury,” he said. “Our argument is that this lawsuit was not and never has been a deprivation of rights claim. Lambert was not deprived of his right to run for sheriff, but rather that Lambert’s lawsuit and claim was that Lambert was terminated for running for sheriff, which is a retaliatory discharge claim. A retaliatory discharge claim requires different instructions to the jury than a deprivation of rights claim, and we believe that Judge Coward therefore gave the proper instructions to the jury.”
So far, the legal actions in the case have cost Sylva taxpayers about $54,000, Ridenour said.
Judges Wanda Bryant, Allegra Collins and Tobias Hampson will hear the case, beginning at 10 a.m.