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La. sheriff prevails in suit over captain fired for living with felon

The captain claimed a policy that forbids deputies from having a relationship with a known felon violated his constitutional right to free association


By Sara Pagones
The Times-Picayune | The New Orleans Advocate

ST. TAMMANY, La. — A former St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office captain who sued over a policy that forced him to choose his girlfriend or his job has lost a second round in a legal challenge of his firing.

Calvin Lewis sued the Sheriff’s Office, claiming a department policy that forbids deputies from having a personal relationship or association with a known felon or anyone incarcerated or in a work-release program violated his Constitutional right to free association.

U.S. District Judge Barry Ashe dismissed Lewis’ suit in 2019 and a three-member panel of the U.S. 5th Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday upheld Ashe’s ruling.

Larry Demmons, attorney for Lewis, said that his client has not decided what to do next. Options include seeking a review by the full panel of the Fifth Circuit or trying to go to the Supreme Court.

“We’re disappointed, obviously,” Demmons said.

St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Randy Smith applauded the ruling, saying the policy was in the best interest of the public.

Promoted then fired

Lewis, who had been promoted to captain in 2017, was fired that same year under a Sheriff’s Office policy that bans relationships with felons.

He filed a federal lawsuit in 2018, claiming that the policy violated his Constitutional right to free association. Lewis had spent a decade living with a woman convicted of a felony in 2005 and had helped raise her two children, his suit said.

The woman had been convicted of bank fraud in Arkansas.

Lewis argued that the Sheriff’s Office policy was selectively enforced and that others in the agency had relationships that violated the policy but it was used against him because he is African-American.

In his ruling, Ashe said that the Sheriff’s Office has a legitimate interest in regulating employee behavior, and especially senior officers, to protect its credibility and integrity.

The judge also said that the policy doesn’t prohibit the relationship itself and said that Lewis didn’t provide evidence to back up his selective enforcement claim.

In his appeal, Lewis argued in part that the lower court had denied his request to amend his complaint to provide additional information about his allegation of selective enforcement.

He also argued that the court erred in not recognizing the policy as an infringement on his right to association.

‘Incidental’ affect

But in upholding the dismissal, the 5th Circuit agreed with the lower court that the policy only incidentally affects the right to intimate association “because it requires employees who violate the policy to relinquish their jobs but did not prohibit the relationship itself.”

As for the plaintiff’s request to amend his complaint to provide additional factual information concerning his complaint about selective enforcement, the 5th Circuit said Lewis had never filed a motion to amend and only mentioned doing so in a footnote to his motion opposing the Sheriff’s Office motion to dismiss.

But in a strongly worded 10 1/2 -page dissent, Judge James Dennis disagreed with the majority on several issues. Lewis should have been allowed to amend his complaint, Dennis wrote, saying that it was an abuse of discretion on the part of the lower court to deny him the opportunity to provide information that “cut to the very heart” of his selective enforcement complaint.

He said that Lewis’ relationship should be analyzed like a marriage and the court must decide what level of scrutiny to apply to a condition of state employment that restricts an employee’s right to marry.

“The majority’s approach would create an anomaly in the law, whereby the right to marry is afforded less constitutional protection than other fundamental liberties,” Dennis wrote.

He called that a double standard that relegates marriage to a second-class right.

Smith, meanwhile, said in a prepared statement that he is pleased with the ruling, which upholds the decision to fire Lewis as a lawful exercise of his discretion to make personnel decisions that uphold his agency’s integrity.

Knowing violation

The decision to fire Lewis came after an internal review confirming his girlfriend’s status as a felon and that the two were living together and he refused to end the relationship, Smith said.

“As such, Mr. Lewis was knowingly in violation of St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office policy and he was thus lawfully terminated,” he said. “It has always been the Sheriff’s considered belief that this policy prohibiting his employees from having close and intimate relationships with known felons is in the best interest of both the public and his agency.”

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