allegation: SVPD officer interfered with application for police job
city didn’t accept young man’s offer to settle for $250,000
UPDATE April 12, 2017
by Terri Jo Neff
A lawsuit against the City of Sierra Vista is going to trial – one year from now. On April 12, 2017, judge Thomas Fink scheduled a jury trial to begin April 10, 2018. Judge Fink also ordered the parties into private mediation in an attempt to resolve the case before trial.
DoPadre filed the civil action in 2015 after Sierra Vista police officer Lori Burdick emailed unsolicited information about DoPadre to another police agency where DoPadre had applied for a job.
The case is assigned to Fink of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court because of recusals or challenges involving all six Cochise County Superior Court judges.
Continue reading for my December 4, 2016 report on this case….
SIERRA VISTA – A lawsuit filed in December 2015 against the City of Sierra Vista and police officer Lori Burdick is moving forward after judge Thomas Fink denied a motion by the city to dismiss the complaint, which deals with an email Burdick sent from her city account. Fink, the presiding judge of the Santa Cruz County Superior Court, was assigned to the case afterall sixCochise County Superior Court judges recused themselves, were disqualified or were not available to hear the case.
Burdick was the officer assigned to investigate a theft report filed by Christopher DoPadre in mid January 2015 concerning a cellphone. According to court documents, during the course of the investigation, the officer came to suspect DoPadre was attempting “to maintain control over” a former girlfriend by calling police. Burdick also learned that DoPadre was hoping to become a police officer for the Town of Huachuca City and was waiting to be sent to the police academy.
In the midst of her investigation, Burdick wrote a four paragraph email tothen Huachuca City police commander Thomas Allen. The three counts of the lawsuit DoPadre filed allege that Burdick’s unsolicited email interfered with his ongoing efforts to become a Huachuca City police officer.
Legal documents prepared by attorney Robert Stachel on behalf of DoPadre note that in the email to Allen, Burdick disclosed what she characterized as “several red flags” in DoPadre’s relationships. She also described one relationship as “at times violent.” Burdick advisedHuachuca City PD’sAllen to contact the Sierra Vista PD records division when doing DoPadre’s backgroundcheckand she ended the email with a list of internal Sierra Vista PD report numbers.
DoPadre, age 26, contends that Huachuca City PD dropped him from consideration after receiving Burdick’s email, and claims Burdick released information in violation of policy. The lawsuit alleges Burdick’s action represented “tortious interference with a business expectancy and intentional infliction of emotional distress” and claims the City of Sierra Vista – as Burdick’s employer – “is vicariously liable” for her actions under the legal theory ofrespondeat superior.
The lawsuit was filed after the City did not accept a July 2015 offer to settle the claims for $250,000. The Notice of Claim identified damages of $125,000 for loss of future wages, $25,000 for the lost value of attending the police academy, and $100,000 for emotional stress and harm to DoPadre’s reputation.
Subject matter of officer’s email fails legal test for absolute immunity
The city, through attorney Andrew Petersen, argued in its motion to dismiss the case that as a police officer Burdick had immunityfrom liability for her actions. The city also noted that all persons – including law enforcement officials – have an absolute immunity in connection to reporting crimes.
The motion to dismiss also contended the city is not liable for Huachuca City’s decision to no longer consider DoPadre for a position, and argued that everything Burdick mentioned in her email was information Huachuca City PD would have eventually learned through a routine background investigation of DoPadre.
DoPadre countered that theSierra Vista PD’s operation manualstates “a signed authorization is required prior to release of information for employment purposes,” which Burdick did not have. The only purpose of the email, according to the lawsuit, was to “attempt to thwart plaintiff’s employment.”
In his July 22 ruling denying the city’s motion to dismiss, judge Fink found that nothing in the court file indicated Burdick’s email was “a report to law enforcement for the purpose of facilitating the investigation and prosecution of crimes” or that the email was sent “in connection with a judicial proceeding.” Those types of communications, Fink explained, meet the criteria for absolute immunity.
However, Fink determined “Burdick is entitled to” qualified immunity under the ruling in Chamberlain v. Mathis ( AZ 1986) which “protects government officials from liability for acts within the scope of their public duties.” An exception to qualified immunity exists, the judge noted, “if the official knew or should have known” the action was “in violation of established law” or if the official “acted in reckless disregard of whether (the action) would deprive another person of their rights.”
Therefore, Fink ruled, DoPadre’s lawsuit can move forward “for the jury to determine” whether the officer “abused her immunity by acting for an improper purpose or in an improper manner.”
The next step in the case is for the attorneys to file a schedule of deadlines leading up to an expected late spring 2017 jury trial. According to court administrator Eric Silverberg, some hearings can be handled telephonically but judge Fink will travel from Nogales to Bisbee for other court proceedings.
According to Sierra Vista PD spokesperson Tim Wachtel, Burdick is currently assigned as a school resource officer at Buena High School.
DoPadre reports theft, ends up being charged with crimes
In her January 23, 2015 email to Huachuca City PD commander Allen, officer Burdick wrote that Sierra Vista PD “had several dealings with (DoPadre) and his girlfriends” and she believed DoPadre’s behavior reflected “red flags concerning domestic violence.” Burdick also noted she encouraged the most recent former girlfriend to apply for a protective order.
A few days after he made the theft report, DoPadre was charged in Sierra Vista Justice Court with false reporting to police, domestic violence endangerment, and domestic violence harassment. The charges were described ina probable cause to arrest statement Burdick gaveto judge Timothy Dickerson.
Burdick noted in thestatementthat while “doing some research” into DoPadre’s theft report, she reached out to another of his past girlfriends “to ask her about her history” with DoPadre. (There is nothing in the court documents that suggest this other former girlfriend had any knowledge of the cellphone complaint
The officer also pulled all of the department’s case files dealing with DoPadre, including a December 16, 2014 traffic accident in which DoPadre’s vehicle rear-ended the car driven by the same former girlfriend he named as the suspect in the cellphone case. Burdick’sstatement references that incident as well as several text messages exchanged between DoPadre and the woman.
The charges against DoPadre were dismissed by judge Dickerson on June 10, 2015 based on a request by his attorney Robert Stachel and Thomas Bennett of the Cochise County Attorney’s Office. A few weeks later the City received the $250,000 notice of claim.
Prior criminal charges (harassment by 120+ text messages) – dismissed
One of the internal report numbers listed in Burdick’s email involved a 2013 incident in which DoPadre was cited by Sierra Vista PD officer William Heiple for two counts of harassment. According to Heiple’s report, DoPadre allegedly sent more than 120 text messages to a former girlfriend, including some after the woman purportedly told DoPadre she would file a harassment report if he continued messaging.
Heiple arrested DoPadre on February 22, 2013 for domestic violence-related harassment. However, the charges were dismissed April 10, 2013 by judgepro temporeLeslie Sansone of the Sierra Vista Justice Court at the request of the Cochise County Attorney’s Office.
EDITOR’S NOTE: See SVPD’s 417pg Operations Manualhere.
Contact reporter Terri Jo Neff at 520-508-3660 and firstname.lastname@example.org