Lawsuit alleges town fired Quantico police chief for enforcing COVID restrictions

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A jury is set to determine if Quantico’s former police chief was illegally fired for enforcing state-mandated COVID-19 safety measures.

Former Police Chief Mark McCoy is suing the town seeking $100,000 and alleging wrongful termination for his April 2020 firing.

McCoy’s lawsuit was filed Jan. 15, 2021, in Prince William County Circuit Court. This March, the case was set for a jury trial from Oct. 3 to Oct. 5.

The filing centers on the operation of barbershops at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and the town’s response to orders for the businesses to close.

Then-Gov. Ralph Northam’s first executive order causing sweeping shutdowns was issued March 12, 2020. A follow-up order, issued March 23, 2020, provided further guidance and closed a majority of businesses, including barbershops.

Violation of the order was a class-one misdemeanor, which carries up to a year in jail and up to a $2,500 fine.

McCoy says that, as police chief, he “has a duty to uphold and enforce the law, including but not limited to the … Executive Order.”

McCoy says that the town’s police department received a complaint on March 31, 2020, that “several barbershops” in town were operation in violation of the order. McCoy said he instructed an officer named Arjun Datta to provide a copy of the executive order to all the businesses.

The town disputes that a complaint was made to the police department and that Datta was told to distribute copies of the executive order.

McCoy alleges that Mayor Kevin Brown contacted the officer to say Brown had “an arrangement” with the town attorney that would allow the barbershops to remain open. McCoy says Brown had “no authority” to enter into what he called an “illegal arrangement.”

Enforcing the agreement, McCoy argues, would have been “aiding and abetting in the commission of a crime.”

The town denies the existence of any such agreement. Instead, Quantico says that as of March 31, 2020, its interpretation of the executive order to allow barbershops to remain open “as long as they limited patrons to 10 persons at a time and complied with social distancing guidelines.” The town argues that it understood that barbers were allowed to have direct contact with customers while performing services.

The town says that on April 1, it changed its interpretation of the executive order and determined that barbershops must be closed. Officials did not indicate in court documents what caused this change.

McCoy said after learning of the alleged arrangement, he still told Datta to distribute copies of the executive order to barbershops.

While distributing the documents, McCoy alleges that one business owner told Datta that “the Mayor has instructed you to allow us to remain open.” McCoy says the officer was spotted by Brown and became “irate” and “accosted” Datta.

Datta was subsequently “improperly suspended,” the lawsuit says. It says McCoy was then “wrongfully terminated” as a “direct result”of his “refusal to refrain from enforcing” the executive order and his “refusal to the Mayor’s illegal agreement to defy the mandates.”

McCoy argues that the town is prohibited from firing him for reasons that “violate the public policy of the Commonwealth.” Essentially, the lawsuit says that because the alleged agreement between Brown and the barbershops violated Northam’s executive order, McCoy couldn’t legally be fired for violating it.

The town instead says McCoy was fired for poor performance, not for violating any alleged agreement. Quantico also “vehemently denies” that McCoy performed the duties expected of him as police chief.

The town says McCoy was suspended without pay for a week starting March 12, 2020, for allegedly refusing to meet with Brown about McCoy’s “poor performance and due to McCoy’s overall poor management of the police department.”

McCoy was placed on a performance improvement plan on March 20, 2020, the town says. The town says it later determined McCoy wasn’t complying with the plan and, after an April 9, 2020, closed session, the Town Council voted to fire him.

McCoy’s initial lawsuit alleged wrongful termination and ultra vires, a legal term referring to an act that requires legal authorization, but is committed without it.

The ultra vires claim was dismissed on June 11, 2021, but the wrongful termination claim was allowed to move forward.

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