Hunter & Varnrobinson

Former Florence police Detectives Walt “Hondo” Hunter, left, and Jarris Varnrobinson are suing the town of Florence and recent and current town officials and employees.

FLORENCE — The U.S. Court of Appeals rejected efforts by several town officials to avoid personal liability for their actions related to the firing of former Florence Police Detectives Walt Hunter and Jarris Varnrobinson.

Attorneys for the town argued the officials should have “qualified immunity” in the case. But in a four-page ruling issued Feb. 19, the Ninth Circuit upheld an earlier decision in district court. Police Lt. Terry Tryon, former Mayor Tom Rankin, former Police Chief Daniel Hughes and former Town Managers Himanshu Patel and Charles Montoya will remain named as individual defendants in the lawsuit.

The town commented in a prepared statement:

“The recent appeal related solely to a narrow, legal issue involving certain claims. The Ninth Circuit simply ruled that it lacks jurisdiction to decide the issue at this time, and we will defend these claims in the District Court. We continue to feel confident that we will ultimately defeat all claims at trial.”

Hunter and Varnrobinson sued the town in 2014, alleging they were fired in retaliation for reporting evidence-tampering and rampant racism at the highest levels of the Florence Police Department. They further alleged their firings constituted illegal retaliation in violation of the First Amendment.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the decision of U.S. Magistrate Judge Deborah Fine, who ruled the First Amendment protected Hunter and Varnrobinson’s reports because those issues are matters of public concern, and that a jury must decide whether they made those reports as part of their duties as law enforcement officers or as private citizens.

Peter Whelan, attorney for the plaintiffs, said the case is now expected to be sent back to U.S. District Court in Phoenix for trial. No date has been set yet, but Whelan said he expects the trial to start in the next few months.

Hunter and Varnrobinson were Florence detectives when the town fired them in late 2012. Hunter returned to work for the town in late 2013 — as an officer, not a detective — after a hearing officer ruled he should get his job back. Despite Varnrobinson’s very similar case, the same hearing officer ruled Varnrobinson’s dismissal should stand. Hunter was eventually fired a second time.

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Mark Cowling is the county reporter for PinalCentral and covers the town of Florence, San Tan Valley and the surrounding area. He can be reached at mcowling@pinalcentral.com.

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