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Cockfield v. City of Fargo

Supreme Court of North Dakota

March 13, 2019

Aaron L. Cockfield, Plaintiff and Appellant
v.
City of Fargo, Defendant and Appellee

          Appeal from the District Court of Cass County, East Central Judicial District, the Honorable Steven E. McCullough, Judge.

          Leo F. J. Wilking, Fargo, ND, for plaintiff and appellant.

          Howard D. Swanson, Grand Forks, ND, for defendant and appellee.

          OPINION

          JENSEN, JUSTICE.

         [¶1] Aaron Cockfield appeals from a judgment dismissing his petition for a writ of mandamus seeking to compel the City of Fargo to reinstate Cockfield as an employee. Cockfield argues the district court erred in deciding the City did not violate his constitutional due process rights when it terminated his employment. We affirm.

         I

         [¶2] Cockfield was employed by the City's Solid Waste Department. On July 28, 2017, Cockfield was asked to perform a specific task within the scope of his employment. Cockfield refused to perform the requested work. Cockfield's acting route supervisor, Shawn Eckre, approached Cockfield to talk about the refusal to perform the requested work. Cockfield was seated when Eckre approached, Cockfield stood up and pushed Eckre, and the push caused Eckre to fall against a wall.

         [¶3] Terry Ludlum, director of solid waste operations, conducted an investigation about the incident and obtained written statements from several employees, including Cockfield. On August 22, 2017, Ludlum, the human resources director, and the route supervisor met with Cockfield about the July incident. Cockfield was informed that the meeting was to review his conduct during the July incident, and he was advised that his conduct violated the City's policy, including the workplace violence policy. Cockfield was informed that Ludlum had interviewed city employees and obtained statements from some employees. During the meeting, Cockfield was not advised which employees had been interviewed, he was not provided with or shown copies of the written statements, and he was not informed about the content of the written statements. Cockfield was given an opportunity to provide an explanation of the incident. Cockfield did not deny refusing to perform the requested work, and he admitted he had pushed Eckre. At the conclusion of the meeting, Ludlum advised Cockfield the City was terminating his employment. Cockfield was told the reason for his termination, and he was provided with written notice of the termination.

         [¶4] Cockfield appealed the termination decision to the Fargo Civil Service Commission. Prior to the hearing, Cockfield was provided with the City employees' written statements. He was also provided with copies of the other documents the City introduced as evidence at the hearing. The Fargo Civil Service Commission upheld the termination.

         [¶5] Cockfield appealed the determination of the Civil Service Commission to the Fargo City Commission. Following a hearing, the City Commission upheld the termination.

         [¶6] Cockfield filed a petition for a writ of mandamus with the district court, alleging his due process rights had been violated during the termination process. The petition sought to compel the City to reinstate him as an employee. The district court dismissed Cockfield's claims, concluding Cockfield's due process rights were not violated. The court determined Cockfield's pre-termination due process rights were not violated because he received notice, a hearing, an explanation of the evidence, and an opportunity to respond. The court also concluded Cockfield's post-termination due process rights had been satisfied.

         II

         [¶7] Cockfield argues the district court abused its discretion by denying his request for a writ of mandamus and concluding the City provided him with adequate due process when his employment was terminated. Cockfield seeks a writ of mandamus to compel his reinstatement as an employee as a remedy for the alleged due process violations.

         [¶8] A writ of mandamus may be issued to "compel the performance of an act which the law specially enjoins as a duty resulting from an office, trust, or station, or to compel the admission of a party to the use and enjoyment of a right or office to which the party is entitled and from which the party is precluded unlawfully by such inferior tribunal, corporation, board, or person." N.D.C.C. § 32-34-01. The district court has discretion in deciding whether to issue a writ of mandamus, and the court's decision will not be overturned on appeal absent an abuse of discretion. Little v. Stark Cty. Sheriff, 2018 ND 22, ¶¶ 8-9, 906 N.W.2d 333. "A district court abuses its discretion if it acts in an arbitrary, ...


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