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Melancon v. Town of Amite City

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, First Circuit

September 24, 2018

GERALD MELANCON, JR.
v.
TOWN OF AMITE CITY GERALD MELANCON, JR.
v.
TOWN OF AMITE CITY

          On Appeal from the 21st Judicial District Court In and for the Parish of Tangipahoa State of Louisiana Trial Court Nos. 2010-0003533 and 2009-0003825 Honorable Elizabeth P. Wolfe, Judge Presiding

          Glenn C. McGovern Metairie, LA Attorneys for Plaintiff -Appellant, Gerald Melancon, Jr.

          Anna Lellelid Metairie, LA Karen Day White Baton Rouge, LA Attorney for Defendant -Appellee, Town of Amite City.

          BEFORE: WHIPPLE, C.J., McCLENDON, AND HIGGINBOTHAM, JJ.

          HIGGINBOTHAM, J.

         Plaintiff challenges the trial court's grant of defendant's motion for involuntary dismissal after plaintiffs presentation of evidence in a bench trial wherein the trial court determined that plaintiff failed to meet his burden of proof under La. R.S. 23:967, the Louisiana Whistleblower Statute ("LWS").

         FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

         Plaintiff, Mr. Gerald Melancon, was hired by the Amite City Police Department (the Department) on March 24, 2008. On August 4, 2009, the Louisiana State Police sent a letter to Jerry Trabona, the Chief of Police for the Department, stating that an audit of the Department uncovered violations of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) criminal database system. The audit revealed uses of the NCIC by Mr. Melancon for unauthorized purposes. After receiving the letter, the Department investigated further and found that Mr. Melancon's passwords for the NCIC and Thinkstream[1] systems were used to run the names of thirteen individuals, including two Amite City council members, three officers with the Tangipahoa Parish Sheriffs Office, seven employees of the Department, and his wife, Gerilyn Melancon. During interviews with Mr. Melancon conducted as part of the Department's investigation, Mr. Melancon denied running the names on several occasions.

         On September 1, 2009, at a meeting of the City Council of the Town of Amite City, Chief Trabona recommended that Mr. Melancon be dismissed from the Department for not following rules and regulations of the department by "running criminal history checks on thirteen people.. .in violation of [La. R.S. 15:596]." The city council unanimously accepted Chief Trabona's recommendation to terminate the employment of Mr. Melancon.

         After Mr. Melancon was terminated, he filed a "Petition to Void Action of the Town of Amite City," arguing that the Town of Amite City (Town) did not comply with the notice provisions in La. R.S. 42:6.1[2], and the action terminating Mr. Melancon should be declared null and void. Subsequently, Mr. Melancon filed a "Petition for Damages" against the Town seeking damages under La. R.S. 23:967, the Louisiana Whistleblower Act. Specifically, in his petition, Mr. Melancon contended that he expressed concerns with his supervisors, including Chief Trabona, about violations of state law he saw occurring within the Department, and that his disclosure of the violations was a motivating factor in the Town's decision to terminate him. Additionally, Mr. Melancon contended that he was instructed by his captain to perform the criminal background checks as part of his investigation into the persons he thought were responsible for violations of the law.

         Mr. Melancon's petitions were consolidated for trial held on August 9 and 10, 2017. At the close of Mr. Melancon's case, the Town moved for a judgment of involuntary dismissal. After taking the matter under advisement, the trial court found that Mr. Melancon failed to carry his burden of proof and signed a judgment on October 27, 2017, granting the Town's motion for involuntary dismissal. It is from this judgment that Mr. Melancon appeals, assigning error to the trial court's conclusion that Mr. Melancon did not prove by a preponderance of the evidence that he was fired for acts protected under La. R.S. 23:967.

         LAW AND ANALYSIS

         Louisiana Code of Civil Procedure article 1672(B) provides the basis for an involuntary dismissal at the close of a plaintiff s case in a bench trial, when a plaintiff has shown no right to relief based on the facts and law. In determining whether involuntary dismissal should be granted, the appropriate standard is whether the plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence in his case-in-chief to establish a claim by a preponderance of the evidence, which means taking the evidence as a whole, the fact or cause sought to be proved is more probable than not. Jackson v. Capitol City Family Health Center, 2004-2671 (La.App. 1st Cir. 12/22/05), 928 So.2d 129, 131. When considering a motion for involuntary dismissal, a plaintiff is entitled to no special inferences in his favor. However, absent circumstances in the record casting suspicion on the reliability of the testimony and sound reasons for its rejection, uncontroverted evidence should be taken as true to establish a fact for which it is offered. Id.

         The trial court's grant of an involuntary dismissal is subject to the manifest error standard of review. Broussard v. Voorhies, 2006-2306 (La.App. 1st Cir. 9/19/07), 970 So.2d 1038, 1041-42, writ denied, 2007-2052 (La. 12/14/07), 970 So.2d 535. Accordingly, in order to reverse the trial court's grant of involuntary dismissal, we must find that there is no factual basis in the record for the trial court's finding or that the finding is clearly ...


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