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Somerset deputy wins $1.1M for firing

A federal jury awarded $1.1 million to a former Somerset County sheriff’s deputy who claimed he was fired for complaining about being forced to doctor arrest reports.

James “Troy” Durham, now working as custodian at a high school in the county, sued Somerset County Sheriff Robert N. Jones in September 2010. Last week, the jury awarded Durham $412,000 in economic losses and $700,000 in noneconomic damages. He had originally sought $10 million.

“It was a long time coming, but Mr. Durham is very pleased with the outcome,” said his attorney, Howard B. Hoffman. “This goes a good way toward restoring his good name and reputation in Somerset County.”

The underlying incident occurred on Aug. 21, 2008, when Durham was involved in a high-speed chase with the driver of a motorcycle. Durham was able to stop the motorcycle but the driver struggled with him during the arrest.

In court records, Durham said he had to knee the driver in the ribs repeatedly, spray him with pepper spray and use open-handed strikes in order to handcuff him. He said all of the tactics were within the use of force protocol of the county department. However, Durham did not charge the driver with resisting arrest or assault.

A few days after the arrest, Durham said, a supervisor told him the suspect claimed he had been injured. According to the lawsuit, two higher-ranking officers then questioned Durham about the arrest and why he had not charged the suspect with resisting arrest and assault.

Things came to a head nine days after the arrest, Durham alleged. A detective sergeant told him there was a problem with his initial police report and that he needed to delete three supplemental reports and scrub out mentions of use of force from the original report. He was also told to add charges of assault and resisting arrest.

Durham said when he refused to alter the report, the detective sergeant told him he was suspended and might be facing assault charges himself.

Facing arrest and suspension, Durham changed the report and deleted the supplemental reports.

But, on Sept. 4, 2008, he filed a grievance with the Somerset County Commissioners over what had happened. The commissioners voted to suspend Durham. He alleged that the commissioners told him an investigation would be conducted into the Aug. 21 arrest, and the investigators would include the same higher-ranking officers he had submitted the grievance about.

The investigators found numerous violations, but at an administrative hearing before a trial board, Durham was found guilty only of two: disseminating department material (to the media, among others) and unbecoming conduct.

The trial board recommended a 10-day suspension, but Jones instead fired Durham.

“[Durham] believed there was wrongdoing in the department and he filed a grievance about it,” Hoffman said. “And, he paid for that request in the form of his job.”

In the original lawsuit, Durham sued Jones in his personal and official capacity and the county was a named defendant. As the case progressed, the county was dropped as a defendant and the complaint was amended to name Jones solely in his personal capacity.

H Scott Curtis, with the Office of the Maryland Attorney General, represented Jones. Curtis said a decision has not been made yet on what step to take next.

“The sheriff is considering his options and has not made up his mind yet whether or not to appeal,” Curtis said.

An appeal on the trial board’s decision is pending before the Maryland Court of Specials Appeals, which heard oral arguments last October.