Fired Georgia Chief Sues Over Intercepted Electronic Communications

A Georgia fire chief who was terminated last year after refusing to resign, has filed suit naming the city, the city manager and the police chief as defendants. Fire Chief William Owens filed suit in US District Court accusing the City of Monroe, City Manager Logan Propes, and Police Chief R.V. Watts of violating his constitutional rights, illegally intercepting electronic communications in violation of Georgia law, whistleblower retaliation, and invasion of privacy.

According to the Walton Tribune, Chief Owens was accused of having an inappropriate relationship with a woman identified in the complaint as K.I.. Allegedly, K.I.’s employer did work for the city. As explained in the complaint:

  • On or about May 12, 2020, when K.I. was in the hospital for surgery, K.I.’s son illegally and without permission accessed K.I.’s Apple watch to obtain electronic communications that were sent between the Plaintiff and K.I.
  • Prior to doing so, K.I.’s son notified Defendant WATTS of what he was going to do, and requested Defendant WATTS assistance and participation.
  • Defendant WATTS then notified Defendant PROPES, and both traveled to meet K.I.’s son.
  • Thereafter, K.I.’s son, Defendant WATTS and Defendant PROPES, illegally and without the permission of the owner (K.I.), accessed private communications that were stored on K.I.’s Apple watch.
  • Defendant WATTS, a law enforcement officer, knew or should have known that accessing the data without permission of the owner was illegal.
  • Defendant WATTS did not obtain a search warrant or Court Order to obtain access to the device, to obtain the stored data or obtain access to the data, or to disseminate the personal and private information and communications that were stored on it.
  • Defendant WATTS provided the illegally obtained data and communications to others.
  • The son of K.I. asked Defendant PROPES to terminate the Plaintiff from his position as Fire Chief, to use the information illegally obtained from K.I.’s Apple watch to do so, and to share the personal and private information with others, specifically city officials.
  • Shortly thereafter, Defendant PROPES contacted the Plaintiff and demanded that the Plaintiff resign, and threatened that if he did not resign, he would be terminated for “conduct unbecoming.”
  • In an effort to coerce and force the Plaintiff into resigning, Defendant PROPES also falsely told the Plaintiff that if he did not resign, he would not receive payments to which the Plaintiff was entitled to receive from the City of Monroe, including accrued leave.

Oddly, the suit does not allege a violation of the Electronic Communications Privacy Act (ECPA), a very powerful federal law that criminalizes interception of electronic communications, provides for civil damages, and prohibits the use of improperly obtained communications. Arguably the city’s use of those communications to base it’s termination decision would violate the ECPA.

The suit seeks reinstatement of Chief Owens, plus damages, costs and attorneys fees. Here is a copy of the complaint. More on the story.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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