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Good Cop, Ambien Cop: 5th Cir OKs Dismissal of Sleepy Cop's Claim

By Robyn Hagan Cain on March 20, 2012 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Ambien and firearms don't mix. Considering that warns that patients who use the popular sleep aid should wait at least four hours -- or until fully awake -- before driving or doing anything that requires one to be awake and alert, most people would conclude that operating firearms while under the influence of Ambien is a poor life choice.

But if everyone reached that conclusion, we might not have today's employment and defamation decision from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals.

Shane Bellard was employed by the East Baton Rouge Sheriff's Office as a deputy sheriff and was enrolled as a cadet in the Capital Area Regional Training Academy (CARTA). During training, Bellard allegedly showed up late and fell asleep in class on multiple occasions. He was also sent home from the firing range for taking the prescription medication Ambien while operating firearms. After three violations for tardiness, intoxication at the range, and sleeping in class, the head of CARTA recommended that Bellard be excused from the academy.

After two female students complained about Bellard's inappropriate comments and behavior, Bellard was terminated for sexual harassment.

Word got around; partly because Bellard and his father, a retired cop, called law enforcement friends to ask Sheriff Gautreaux let Bellard resign instead of being fired. Bellard later sued Gautreaux, individually and personally, claiming that the EBR Sheriff's office deprived him of a federal liberty interest when he was denied a name-clearing hearing after being terminated.

The district court dismissed the claims. Last week, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed that decision.

The Fifth Circuit evaluates a federal liberty interest claim using a seven-element stigma-plus-infringement test to determine whether the plaintiff was entitled to notice or a name-clearing hearing before dismissal.

To prevail, a plaintiff must show: (1) he was discharged; (2) stigmatizing charges were made against him in connection with the discharge; (3) the charges were false; (4) he was not provided notice or an opportunity to be heard prior to the discharge; (5) the charges were made public; (6) he requested a hearing to clear his name; and (7) the employer denied the request.

Bellard's claims against the Sheriff in his individual capacity failed because Bellard had no evidence that the Gautreaux personally publicized defamatory statements. (Bellard's only evidence was his own statement about a conversation he had with the Baton Rouge Police Chief, who purportedly said that he had already heard about Bellard's termination from the Sheriff.)

The Fifth Circuit concluded that the alleged statement was hearsay and not proper evidence for summary judgment.

Bellard isn't only out of luck with regard to his federal liberty interest claim; under Louisiana law, a past employer who provides accurate information about an employee in response to a prospective employer's request is immune from civil liability. As long as Sheriff Gautreaux is acting in good faith, he's free to tell inquiring prospective employers about Bellard's antics.

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