W.Va. university retaliated against officers, jury rules

WEST VIRGINIA — A Monongalia County jury in February ordered West Virginia University to pay $868,000 in damages for retaliating against three campus police officers who tried to report the school for allegedly falsifying campus crime statistics.

A judge later reduced the penalty by $600,000 to $268,000 because he did not believe state law supported punitive damages in the case. He did not, however, overturn the original verdict in favor of officers Kenneth Fike, Daniel Holsinger and Robert Ryan. 

The officers filed suit after they were forced to take shorter lunch breaks and were assigned more walking patrols than other officers, they said. The men claim the Morgantown school retaliated against them after they tried to expose the university’s alleged misclassification of on-campus burglaries as larcenies in crime reports.  

While larcenies are usually classified as misdemeanor offenses, burglaries are felonies and require unlawful entry on the part of the perpetrator. Unlike larcenies, burglaries must be reported publicly under the Clery Act, a federal law that requires any college or university that receives federal financial assistance to annually release a report of certain crimes committed on campus during the previous year. The Clery Act also requires schools to give “timely reports” of imminent safety threats on campus and requires campus police to keep public records of daily activity.

Thomas Dorer, the university’s attorney, said the crimes were classified as larcenies because there was no evidence of unlawful entry.

Security on Campus, Inc., a watchdog organization, filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education against the school on Feb. 13. 

“It is important that institutions properly classify crime reports for disclosure under the Clery Act. Only in this way will students … understand the true extent of crime on their campus, allowing them to make informed decisions about avoiding risk,” wrote S. Daniel Carter, senior vice president of Security on Campus, in the complaint.

The DOE is investigating the alleged Clery Act violations and can fine the school up to $27,500 for each violation, if any are found. The university denies falsifying crime statistics and is cooperating with the investigation, said Bill Nevin, a WVU spokesman. 

“We certainly feel that we have followed all state and federal guidelines when it comes to crime reporting, and we open our books, and we welcome any type of a review,” Nevin said.

The three officers are planning to appeal the reduction of damages to the state Supreme Court, which will not hear the appeal until mid-summer at the earliest, said Jane Peak, the plaintiffs’ attorney. 

The university is considering appealing the verdict to the state Supreme Court.

CASE: Holsinger, Fike and Ryan v. West Virginia University, Civ. Action No. 00-C-49 (W.Va. Cir. Ct. Monongalia Co. March 31, 2004)