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Fort Worth loses appeal to stop trial in lawsuit filed by former police chief

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The city of Fort Worth has lost an appeal at the Texas Supreme Court to stop a whistleblower lawsuit trial involving former Police Chief Joel Fitzgerald, according to a note about the ruling from the court.

The city had asked the court to reconsider a previous ruling that requires the civil case to go before a jury. The court denied the request on Friday.

Fitzgerald was fired in May 2019. He has filed a whistleblower lawsuit against the city asking he be restored to his former position. He will also seek actual and punitive damages from the city of Fort Worth, including the possibility of reinstatement, his attorney Stephen Kennedy has said.

The city has consistently said Fitzgerald was terminated because he failed to exercise good judgment and exhibited poor leadership, claims which Fitzgerald’s legal team has challenged in court.

An official with the city’s attorney’s office said in a statement that attorneys are ready to defend the decisions of Fort Worth leaders in court, but declined to answer questions about the ruling, citing that it is an ongoing legal matter.

“We exhausted our appeal of that procedural issue to the Texas Supreme Court and now we will pursue in the trial court our legitimate defenses to Fitzgerald’s claims,” the statement read.

Kennedy declined to comment outside of what was included in a Monday news release from the firm.

Despite the city’s consistent claims that Fitzgerald was fired because of poor judgment and performance in the job, the Texas Workforce Commission found in February that there was no evidence he acted inappropriately during a police conference in Washington in 2019, which city officials said was pivotal in the decision to terminate him. And in May 2020, a judge ruled that his discharge designation must be changed to honorable.

The city has maintained, though, that Fitzgerald did not act appropriately in his role as police chief.

Fitzgerald was fired after he confronted Austin Sgt. Todd Harrison, president of the Combined Law Enforcement Associations of Texas, after an awards banquet and dinner as part of National Police Week.

Fitzgerald has said he approached Harrison to discuss a news release from the state law enforcement union earlier that month. Fitzgerald’s membership in the group had been suspended because he failed to follow protocol by not joining the Fort Worth Police Officers Association before joining the state organization, according to a news release.

Whistleblower and retaliation claims

Fitzgerald was scheduled to meet with the FBI about investigations he was conducting into computer security in the city the day he was fired, he said at a 2019 hearing in which he sought an injunction to stop the city from hiring a new police chief.

City officials said in 2019 Fitzgerald secretly recorded meetings and was investigating possible corruption by the city before his termination, unbeknownst to even some executive members of his staff.

Kennedy denied in 2019 the recordings were done in secret. Kennedy said Fitzgerald had asked Officer Mason Fincher, a member of the special investigations unit, to record meetings as part of an investigation into possible corruption by the city and the falsification of information provided to the Texas Department of Public Safety.

Fitzgerald said he was investigating investigating city officials in the IT department for misrepresenting facts before an audit of a computer network designed to share law enforcement information nationwide.

Fitzgerald’s lawsuit also mentions suspicions that he was fired in retaliation for applying to the police chief job in Baltimore in 2019.

In closing arguments at the 2019 hearing, Fort Worth City Attorney Lynn Winter argued that Fitzgerald was trying to control the city’s hiring practices.

A judge said at the 2019 hearing on the injunction that some violations that were addressed during the hearing might rise to the level of a crime. The injunction was denied by the judge.

Continued work in law enforcement

Fitzgerald has not left law enforcement since he lost his job with Fort Worth. He was hired on as an assistant police chief in Philadelphia in January 2020, a position his attorney said paid around $150,000 less than his job in Fort Worth. In April 2020, he announced he would join the Waterloo, Iowa, police department as its first Black police chief. He was also the first Black police chief in Fort Worth.

This report contains information from Star-Telegram archives.

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