Fenwick Police Chief Hires Attorney, Demands Employment Contract Be Restored

Fenwick Police Chief Hires Attorney, Demands Employment Contract Be Restored
Fenwick Police Chief John Devlin is pictured at his swearing-in ceremony in September of 2020. Photo by Bethany Hooper

FENWICK ISLAND – Fenwick Island’s police chief has hired an attorney in an effort to restore his employment contract.

On Tuesday, attorney Thomas Neuberger issued a letter to the Fenwick Island Town Council demanding that his client, Fenwick Island Police Chief John Devlin, be reinstated and his contract restored through Aug. 31, 2025.

The action comes more than a month after the town announced it would not renew Devlin’s employment agreement and weeks after allegations of a security breach within the Fenwick Island Police Department came to light.

“After our careful investigation it appears that his employment was terminated recently just seven days after he chose to enforce the rule of law against your Mayor who it appears has illegally had unlimited access to secure areas of the Police Department containing highly confidential and sensitive ‘Criminal Justice Information’ which is strictly protected by Delaware and Federal law from unauthorized access and risk of disclosure,” the letter reads. “Your actions terminating Chief Devlin because he refused to violate the criminal and other statutory laws of this State violate (a) the ‘public policy’ protections contained within the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing of his contract, and also (b) the implied term of his contract that he apply the law evenhandedly to all citizens, opening the Town up to a State court breach of contract lawsuit for his lost wages and benefits.”

The letter continues, “But more importantly, his federal constitutional rights also have been violated which opens each of you personally up to a civil rights lawsuit in federal court for unlimited compensatory and punitive damages, as well as the attorney’s fees he will have to spend to obtain justice.”

In a hand-delivered letter issued May 1, the town notified Devlin it would not renew his employment contract, which was extended in August 2021. To that end, Devlin’s employment with the town will terminate on Aug. 31.

“The Town expects that Chief Devlin will finish out his term in accordance with his employment agreement,” Mayor Natalie Magdeburger said at the time. “The Town Council of Fenwick Island is commencing a search for a Police Chief and the position will be advertised in the near future.”

The news came as a surprise to several community members, who went before the town council on May 26 to express their support for the police chief. Their comments, however, soon turned into questions regarding an alleged security breach at the police station.

“If there is a breach of security with the police station, I’d like to know what it was,” resident Faye Horner said last month.

In a June interview, Devlin claimed Magdeburger used a security access code on the evening of April 23 to enter the police station without permission and without an escort. He said only personnel certified by the Delaware Criminal Justice Information System (DELJIS) can enter the police station without an escort.

Magdeburger has since denied the allegations, stating she did not unlawfully enter the police station and had used a pass code the police chief had given to her to obtain a copy of the police schedule for upcoming ride-alongs with officers. She said she was escorted by an officer the entire time.

“I’m just trying to do my job and do it as well as I can,” she said in an interview earlier this month. “It’s unfortunate an allegation like this was made in that circumstance. At the end of the day, I don’t believe I did anything wrong. I did not get any information I wasn’t entitled to receive.”

In the wake of the incident, Devlin has sent an ethics violation report to the Delaware attorney general’s office and DELJIS.

The demand letter issued this week opines that the reporting of the alleged security breach and Devlin’s termination were linked.

“Seven days after the report of a security breach on April 24, Chief Devlin on May 1 in writing was advised that the Town, acting through the entire Town Council, had decided not to renew for its second two year term its employment contract with the chief,” the letter reads. “He has been sidelined since that date and his duties are executed by a Lieutenant. The temporal causal link between the report of a security breach and this termination is unmistakable.”

Devlin’s attorney ultimately argued the town violated public policy protections, as well as an implied contract term that Devlin would apply the law equally to all citizens.

“Consequently, all contracts with Chief Devlin contained the implied term that he would enforce the rule of law, against the high and mighty, and not just against those low on the latter …,” the letter reads. “Thus, it was a contract breach to non-renew Chief Devlin’s employment just seven days after he obeyed the criminal law and had your Mayor reported to the authorities.”

Neuberger also accused officials of free speech retaliation.

“The First Amendment accordingly prohibits publishing Chief Devlin for opposing or exposing illegal demands on his department …,” the letter reads. “Thus, because of this retaliation that is illegal under federal law, my client will be able to recover not just his lost wages and benefits but also additional damages to compensate him for his emotional distress, injury or reputation and the humiliation he suffered. This is separate apart from the punitive damages against each of you personally that will be recoverable.”

Neuberger ultimately demanded that Devlin have his second, two-year contract reinstated through August 2025 and that his attorney’s fees be paid.

In a statement this week, Magdeburger said, “It is unfortunate Chief Devlin and his new counsel are using the media to discuss this matter.  We would like nothing more than to respond and discuss the numerous discussions that occurred with Chief Devlin during the last two years.  However, we will refrain from discussing personnel matters publicly at this time, as it is not in the best interests of Chief Devlin or the Town of Fenwick Island to do so.”

Magdeburger added that Devlin had not been terminated.

“Rather, Council unanimously decided to forgo exercising the Town’s option, per the Chief’s employment agreement, to extend his term of service for an additional two years beyond August 31, 2023,” she said. “The timing of the notice, May 1, 2023, was dictated by the terms of the employment agreement. Nor have we limited Chief Devlin’s duties; to the contrary, we continue to expect him to perform his duties in a competent and professional manner, as he agreed to do, including, but not limited to ensuring that Fenwick Island has adequate police coverage. There are officers within the department who will and have endeavored to make sure Fenwick Island remains safe during the transition.”

She continued, “We are actively searching for a Chief of Police and are currently conducting interviews of qualified candidates.  We will notify the public once a new Chief of Police is selected.”

About The Author: Bethany Hooper

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Bethany Hooper has been with The Dispatch since 2016. She currently covers various general stories. Hooper graduated from Stephen Decatur High School in 2012 and the University of Maryland in 2016, where she completed double majors in journalism and economics.