Lawsuit by fired UAFS cop should be dismissed, UA System lawyer argues

LITTLE ROCK — A lawsuit by a former campus police officer for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith who claims he was wrongfully terminated should be dismissed because the University of Arkansas System is immune from civil suits, a lawyer for the UA System argued Thursday before the state Supreme Court.

A lawyer for the fired officer argued that sovereign immunity does not apply in the case because the school acted in bad faith by denying the officer access to its grievance procedures. The attorneys also sparred over whether the suit was filed in the proper venue.

The Supreme Court court heard oral arguments but did not immediately issue a ruling in the UA System’s appeal of a Crawford County circuit judge’s ruling rejecting its claims of sovereign immunity and improper venue. The UA System is seeking dismissal of the suit by Mike Burcham, who was fired by UAFS in April 2010.

Burcham, who had served as an officer for the University of Arkansas’ Fayetteville campus for five years before transferring to UAFS in April 2009, claims he was fired in retaliation for questioning the policies and procedures of UAFS campus police. He alleges that the firing came a day after he told a sergeant he did not know how to train a new recruit because the UAFS police had no procedural manual.

UA System attorney Matt McCoy told the Supreme Court that although some narrow exceptions to a state entity’s sovereign immunity exist, no exception applies in Burcham’s case. He said Burcham was an at-will employee.

“In Arkansas, that means he has no property interest in continued employment,” McCoy said.

He also argued that lawsuits against state entities must be filed in Pulaski County, a rule that he said is intended to preserve the state’s limited resources and prevent state officials from being dragged away from their jobs and forced to travel all over the state to appear in various courts.

Burcham, a Van Buren resident who now works for the Sebastian County Sheriff’s Office, filed his suit in Crawford County Circuit Court.

Kevin Holmes, Burcham’s attorney, argued that the same employee handbook that informed Burcham he was an at-will employee also established a grievance procedure for terminated employees, but he said that when Burcham tried to follow the procedure he was not allowed to.

To allow UAFS to choose to follow some of the provisions in its employee handbook and ignore others would have “a chilling effect” on state employees across Arkansas, Holmes said.

Holmes also argued that in the past the UA System has consented in some cases to litigants bringing their suits in counties other than Pulaski.

“It was a possibility they would consent to venue in Crawford County,” he said, adding that if the UA System will not consent to Crawford County as a venue in this case, Burcham should be allowed to transfer his case to Pulaski County.

Justice Courtney Goodson has recused from the case and has been replaced by appointed Special Justice Bob Hankins. The court did not indicate when it would rule.