Appellate justices snatch jury verdict, leave former constable empty handed

David Yates Nov. 2, 2009, 7:00am

Justice Steve McKeithen

Despite winning his case a year ago, a former Jefferson County constable had his $126,500 jury award stripped by the Ninth Court of Appeals last Thursday.

As the Southeast Texas Record reported in September 2008, the trial of Larry Roccaforte vs. Jefferson County ended with jurors ruling that Roccaforte was denied liberty and property interests without due process of law by his former boss Precinct 7 Chief Deputy Jeff Greenway.

The jury awarded Roccaforte $56,500 for deprivation of his property interest, $69,425 for deprivation of his liberty interest, and $325 for retaliation.

Roccaforte, a former chief constable for Precinct 7, filed a civil suit against the county, Greenway, and his fellow officers in June 2006, alleging his constitutional rights were violated when he was fired for not reporting to duty following Hurricane Rita in 2005 and for forging a court document while on probation.

Shortly after the trial, Judge Milton Shuffield signed a judgment awarding $69,425 to Roccaforte for deprivation of his liberty interest, as well as $4,518.37 in court costs, and $86,600 in attorney's fees, court papers show.

The judgment prompted Greenway to file a motion for judgment non obstante veredicto, a legal term for asking the trial judge to rule in favor of a losing party even though the jury's verdict was in favor of the other side.

Shuffield denied the motion and on Dec. 8, 2008, Greenway filed an appeal asking justices to reverse the judge's ruling.

On Thursday, Oct. 29, Chief Justice Steve McKeithen of the Ninth Court of Appeals issued an opinion reversing Judge Shuffield's decision and ruled "that Roccaforte take nothing as to his claims against Greenway."

"[W]e ... reverse the trial court's denial of Greenway's motion for JNOV as to Roccaforte's liberty interest, and we render judgment that Roccaforte take nothing as to his claims against Greenway," the opinion states.

Case background

In his suit, Roccaforte says his demotion and firing came "after media attention was directed to the ineffectiveness of federal and state representatives and the apparent lack of some local officers to be present in the area" after Category 3 Hurricane Rita struck Southeast Texas on Sept. 24, 2005.

During the trial, Greenway testified that he demoted and put Roccaforte on 90 days probation for not reporting in after the storm, and then fired him three months later for allegedly lounging around at home while he was on duty.

Court documents and testimony show that Roccaforte had indeed returned to duty almost immediately after the storm passed, but failed to report in with Greenway.

Shortly after Roccaforte's demotion for alleged dereliction of duty, Greenway said in court that Roccaforte's wife called Greenway deragatory names in public and in front of another constable. The other constable reported the incident to Greenway.

Roccaforte's attorney, Larry Watts, had said in court that the incident served as another false catalyst for Roccaforte's firing.
But Roccaforte's firing was cemented on Jan. 5, 2006, when Greenway had another of his constables spy on Roccoforte.

According to court documents and testimony, the constable reported that Roccaforte remained at his home from 7:57 a.m. to 1:53 p.m. Jan. 5 when he was supposed to be on duty. No attempt was made to contact Roccaforte to find out why he was at home.

During his testimony, Roccaforte contended he was not lounging around at home and presented a court document proving he had served a citizen at 9 a.m. Jan. 5.

Greenway testified that he believed the document was an illegal forgery and used the document as grounds for Roccaforte's termination.

Watts contended his client was fired on bogus accusations and said the incident may have unjustly prevented Roccaforte, who now works at a refinery, from being hired by another law enforcement department.

"You tell me why ... for some strange reason an officer with 20 years of experience ... couldn't get a job," testified Roccaforte, adding that most departments wouldn't even give him a reason for their refusal to hire him.

Appeals case No. 09-08-00529-CV
Trial case No. D177-131

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