Memphis Battalion Chief Reinstated With Backpay After 11 Years

A Memphis battalion chief who was terminated in 2011, has been ordered reinstated to the department with full back pay and benefits. The Tennessee Court of Appeals has ordered the reinstatement of Battalion Chief Beverly Prye, in a case that is not your typical wrongful termination suit.

Chief Prye was accused of participating in a scheme to forge the will of a fellow fighter. However, it appears she did nothing wrong and it took years for her to clear her name.

The facts are complicated, and are quoted here at length to be as precise as possible with the details:

  • Ulysses Jones, Jr., who was also an employee with the MFD, was instrumental in helping Ms. Prye get her start with the MFD.
  • Over the years, Ms. Prye explained that the two of them bonded and became “very good friends.”
  • Toward the end of Mr. Jones’s career, Ms. Prye stated that he expressed his intentions to marry his girlfriend, Ms. Sandra Richards.
  • In February 2010, Ms. Prye received a call from Mr. Jones who asked her “to do something really important for [him].”
  • Later that day, Ms. Prye went to a residence, the location of which was provided by Mr. Jones.
  • When she arrived and entered the house, she learned that he needed her to witness and sign his Last Will and Testament.
  • She stated that she watched Mr. Jones sign the document, but only glanced at it.
  • She then signed the document as a witness and did not review it.
  • She later stated that she was in a hurry and was “in and out” in ten minutes or less.
  • Ms. Prye also stated that she couldn’t remember any of the content of the document, including the identity of any beneficiaries.
  • She further explained that she was not surprised when Mr. Jones told her what the document was because Mr. Jones intended to marry Ms. Richards.
  • She also explained that she had known Mr. Jones for more than twenty-five years, had signed things for him in the past, and signed the document as a witness at his request.
  • Mr. Jones died in November 2010, and as a result, Ms. Richards filed a petition to admit his purported Last Will and Testament to probate.
  • Thereafter, the two children of Mr. Jones filed a petition in Shelby County Probate Court contesting the validity of the Will.
  • In May 2011, the probate court entered an order concluding that the Will did not bear the genuine signature of Mr. Jones and that the Will was therefore invalid.
  • Afterward, an administrative investigation was opened by the Memphis Police Department pertaining to the submission of the Will in which Ms. Prye was listed as a suspect.
  • Upon conclusion of the investigation, the report was forwarded to the Division of Fire Services for administrative review.
  • Ms. Richards, Ms. Langford-Brannon, and Ms. Prye were arrested in December 2011 for their involvement in the Will.
  • Ms. Prye was charged with fabricating/tampering with evidence, two counts of forgery, and five counts of aggravated perjury.
  • Several media outlets broadcasted stories regarding the arrests, which brought embarrassment and shame to the City and the MFD.
  • The Division held an administrative hearing on the matter and decided to terminate Ms. Prye as an employee.
  • Thereafter, Ms. Prye appealed her termination to the City’s Civil Service Commission for the City.
  • For approximately eight years, the matter was held in abeyance pending the resolution of Ms. Prye’s related criminal matter.
  • However, all charges against Ms. Prye were eventually expunged from her record.
  • After Ms. Prye’s charges were expunged, the Commission ultimately held its hearing on the matter in January 2020.
  • At the hearing, Ms. Prye maintained that she signed the document at Mr. Jones’s request, received no compensation or benefit for the same, and saw Mr. Jones sign the document.
  • She testified that she told the truth when she was questioned about the Will during the investigation.
  • She stated that she did not abuse her responsibility as a battalion chief by going to sign the Will and that she had no ill intent.
  • She also stated that she had never been demoted and had never had any discipline imposed against her.
  • She believed that she was hastily fired and explained that employees who had committed domestic violence and other crimes only received suspensions and were actually promoted later on in their careers.
  • She concluded that her reputation was dragged through the media and everything she had done in the past twenty-plus years “went down the drain.”
  • After the hearing, the Commission reached its decision on February 19, 2020.
  • The Commission found no reason to disagree with the probate court’s ruling or the logic applied in reaching its decision that Mr. Jones did not sign the Will.
  • The Commission noted that the probate court’s order was final and not appealed by Ms. Richards.
  • As a result, the Commission stated that “the only conclusion this panel can reach is that Ms. Prye perjured herself[.]”
  • The Commission concluded that its decision was “straightforward,” stating that “Ms. Prye lied about her actions and misrepresented them” to a judge and to her superiors at the City.
  • The Commission explained that “Ms. Prye’s deceit was clearly established in the Probate proceeding” and Ms. Prye was “held to be deceitful by an esteemed sitting Shelby County Judge.”
  • Therefore, the Commission unanimously affirmed the decision to terminate Ms. Prye as an employee.
  • In March 2020, Ms. Prye filed a petition for judicial review in the chancery court, challenging the Commission’s decision that upheld her termination.
  • Ms. Prye argued that the Commission’s decision to sustain her termination was arbitrary and capricious because there was no evidentiary support in the record.
    • [The Chancery Concluded:] The Commission totally disregarded the fact that the Probate Court judge found that Ms. Sandra Richards'[s] testimony was, ‘evasive at best, and dubious as to trustworthiness,’ and made no such finding for Petitioner Beverly Prye. The Commission even found that, ‘The Will purports to leave all of Mr. Jones'[s] property and estate to Sandra E. Richards and appoints her as ‘Executor without bond or security.’ At minimum, the Commission’s finding that the Will left all of Mr. Jones'[s] property and estate to Sandra E. Richards shows that there is another reasonable possibility that was not considered by the Commission—that Sandra E. Richards altered the original will and kept the original attestation signatures of the original Last Will and Testament, which unfortunately, is commonplace with a high-profiled individual like Decedent was.
  • Moreover, the chancery court pointed out that Ms. Prye’s termination letter stated that she was terminated for her arrest when there was no evidence of the charges or of any conviction in the record to support the charges.
  • The chancery court reversed the termination of Ms. Prye and reinstated her as a battalion chief with the MFD with full backpay and benefits.
  • Thereafter, the City timely filed an appeal.

The Court of Appeals upheld the Chancery Court, concluding:

  • While the probate court went out of its way to find that Ms. Richards was “evasive” and “dubious,” the probate court did not specifically address Ms. Prye’s credibility as a witness.
  • There was no proof that Ms. Prye forged her signature, manipulated the Will for her benefit, or received compensation or a benefit from signing the Will.
  • Ms. Prye’s statements that she went to the address provided by Mr. Jones, saw Mr. Jones sign the Will, and signed the Will as a witness at Mr. Jones’s request were not contradicted.
  • The probate court then concluded that the Will did not bear the genuine signature of Mr. Jones and was therefore invalid.
  • The probate court’s order made no mention of perjury, and yet the Commission reached a conclusion that Ms. Prye had perjured herself.
  • We reiterate that the Commission stated that “Ms. Prye’s deceit was clearly established in the Probate proceeding” and Ms. Prye was “held to be deceitful by an esteemed sitting Shelby County Judge.”
  • However, the probate court’s order lacked any of this language and did not specifically contain such a finding.
  • As such, we agree with the chancery court in that the Commission’s decision was arbitrary and capricious.
  • The Commission’s decision lacked substantial and material evidence to support its conclusions and disregarded the facts or circumstances of the case.
  • For the aforementioned reasons, we affirm the decision of the chancery court. Costs of this appeal are taxed to the appellant, the City of Memphis, for which execution may issue if necessary.

Here is a copy of the decision:

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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