OXFORD • Former Calhoun City Police Chief Tito Lopez was released this week from a federal wrongful termination lawsuit.
Former officer Greg Sockwell said he was just doing his job when he responded to a domestic violence call in May 2017 at the home of Lopez. The officer said in the weeks following, the chief mounted a retaliation and harassment campaign that ended with Sockwell being fired in July 2017.
Sockwell filed suit in U.S. District Court in January against Lopez and the town of Calhoun City.
Lopez argued that he was entitled to qualified immunity, since he did not have final authority to fire officers. Under state law backed by an Attorney General opinion, the board of aldermen has the final word when it comes to hiring or firing employees.
In an opinion filed this week, Senior U.S. District Judge Glen Davidson dismissed the claims against Lopez with prejudice, meaning they cannot be brought back. The case against the town will proceed.
According to the lawsuit, Sockwell responded to the domestic disturbance call on May 10, 2017. Lopez’s girlfriend answered the door, appearing “fearful and as if she had been crying.” Lopez stood back from the door but was visibly agitated.
As the officer tried to explain why he was there, the chief began to yell and berate the officer and “ordered him to get his a – back in the car and get the hell out of there.”
He said Lopez called him later that shift an apologized. When Sockwell admitted he had spoked with two Calhoun County deputy sheriffs about the incident, Lopez reportedly became irate, saying he had “betrayed him” by “telling everyone he had a domestic at his house.”
The lawsuit alleges that Lopez began a campaign of harassment to force Sockwell to leave. He allegedly told other officers not to back-up Sockwell and solicited false complaints against Sockwell to justify firing him.
On July 5, 2017, Sockwell hand-delivered a grievance to the Calhoun City mayor. The mayor said she could not intervene in the day to day operations of the police department.
Less than two weeks after the grievance was filed, Lopez, accompanied by a police sergeant hand-delivered a termination letter to Sockwell’s Lee County home.
If the incidents would have happened a year later, Lopez could have been held liable. In June 2018, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that non-final decision-makers like Lopez can he held individually liable for First Amendment retaliation claims.
The suit asks for back pay and benefits, compensatory damages for emotional pain and suffering, as well as costs and attorney fees.
Lopez was named police chief in the summer of 2015. He retired suddenly in July 2018. He turned in his resignation to the board of aldermen on a Monday and said he would work until the end of the following week.