Former deputy sheriff files lawsuit for wrongful termination

BURLINGTON — A former Addison County deputy sheriff maintains he was fired from his job last year after he believes comments he made during a secret session of the Leicester selectboard were later shared with his boss, Sheriff Donald Keeler Jr.
Mark Stacey filed a civil lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Burlington last week claiming a wrongful termination by Keeler and the Addison County Sheriff’s Department.
Stacey believes his firing on July 6, 2016, violated his right to free speech as guaranteed under both the U.S. and Vermont Constitutions, according to the lawsuit.
Court papers say Stacey thinks he was dismissed from the department because he had told the Leicester selectboard in what he thought was a private conversation in a closed-door meeting that he wanted to run for Addison County Sheriff at some point. Stacey said he indicated he did not want to run against Keeler, but knew the county sheriff was going to retire within a few years, the lawsuit said.
Stacey is requesting compensation for lost income and lost savings and wants a permanent injunction ordering the defendants to reinstate him to a fulltime job. He also seeks compensatory damages of at least $250,000 and requests punitive damages against the sheriff.
Keeler, reached by the Addison Independent, tells a different story.
“I did not need him,” said Keeler, who has been county sheriff since April 2012 following the death of Jim Coons.
Stacey was never considered a fulltime employee, Keeler said. He said Stacey was a part-time employee with no benefits.
“He serves at my pleasure,” the sheriff said. Keeler, who has been with the department for more than 40 years, referred additional questions to his lawyer.
“We’re not planning on settling anything,” defense lawyer Pietro Lynn of Burlington said. “This is a case where we see no liability and expect to defend it through verdict if necessary.”
Stacey’s lawyer, Caroline S. Earle of Montpelier, said she believes her client should not be penalized for answering questions from the Leicester selectboard truthfully.
Stacey made the comment about a possible run for Addison County Sheriff when he was being interviewed in spring 2016 for a vacancy on the board caused by a resignation. Stacey had previously served on the selectboard in Leicester — a town with about 975 residents — and somebody was needed to fill a seat until Town Meeting Day in March 2017.
After interviewing candidates behind closed doors on June 20, 2016, the Leicester selectboard voted 4-0 later that night to appoint Stacey. Stacey attended four subsequent selectboard meetings before resigning from the board, according to town records.
Three of the four selectboard members serving at the time of the closed-door meeting said last week they had no knowledge of the lawsuit. Board chair Diane Benware and members Brad Lawes and Tom Barker learned about the lawsuit from the Addison Independent. Ron Fiske, the fourth board member, could not be reached by phone.
Benware declined further comment. Barker said he had signed Stacey’s nominating petition for his unsuccessful run for Addison County high bailiff in November.
In the lawsuit, Earle noted that in Vermont employees are considered “at will” and may be fired for any reason or no reason. However she wrote one exception is when “there is a clear and compelling public policy against the reason advanced for the discharge.” She maintains the firing was for Stacey exercising his First Amendment right to free speech.
Stacey’s lawsuit says he started as a part-time deputy sheriff in 2000 and had worked fulltime for Shea Motor Company for 32 years until it was sold and he left in December 2014. Stacey said he was “promoted” at the sheriff’s department in February or March 2015 to full-time employment. He was terminated 16 months later.
Stacey began working as a part-time officer with the Vergennes Police Department on Sept. 26, 2016, and recently has been filling in fulltime following a resignation, records show.
Stacey in his lawsuit said his career at the sheriff’s department as “exemplary.” He said a supervisor called him “one of the hardest-working deputies in the department.” Stacey was promoted to corporal in 2010 “in recognition of his excellent work,” the lawsuit said.
He called the termination “devastating” to him and his family.
Stacey said during the closed door meeting with the Leicester selectboard he was asked about his ambitions for the future. He said he spoke about taking a granddaughter into his home and raising her with his wife. He also expressed interest in becoming sheriff after Keeler retired.
“Stacey was answering the questions of the selectboard openly and frankly, as is his nature,” the lawsuit states. “He also understood that his responses were being provided in executive session, with the accompanying confidentiality and protections afforded his communications.”
The Leicester man said his interest in becoming the sheriff was known by Keeler. Stacey also maintained he secured an endorsement pledge from Keeler when he stepped down.
Stacey said one day after the closed-door interview with the Leicester selectboard, he was offered the vacant seat and accepted it. About two weeks later things unraveled
He said he was called in to a meeting with Keeler and Jeanette Willey, the office manager, on July 6, 2016, and fired. The lawsuit said he asked for a reason and Keeler declined to give an explanation and also was advised not to provide a reason.
In the 10-page lawsuit, Stacey said he believes his comments had gotten back to Keeler.
Defendants in civil lawsuits in federal court normally are given three weeks to respond in writing to the claims made by the plaintiff.

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