Suit: Wayne County Sheriff's deputy fired over relationship

Mark Hicks
The Detroit News

Correction: This story has been updated to reflect that Wayne County Undersheriff Daniel Pfannes’ wife’s brother was married previously to a woman who dated Peter Duncan, according to a lawsuit Duncan filed against the county. The ex-husband’s relationship to Pfannes was incorrect in a previous version.

A former deputy is suing the Wayne County Sheriff’s Office amid allegations supervisors there forced the staffer to end his engagement to a woman convicted of a crime, then fired him last year.

According to the lawsuit initially filed in Wayne County Circuit Court then transferred to U.S. District Court last week, in 2017, Peter Duncan started dating a woman who had pleaded guilty about five years earlier to discharging a firearm in a building and was sentenced to probation, the filing stated.

After learning about the relationship, the county undersheriff, Daniel Pfannes, whose wife's brother previously was married to the woman, allegedly alerted Sheriff Benny Napoleon in early 2018, according to the lawsuit.

The woman had called Pfannes' home to arrange Christmas dinner plans with her children using a cellphone Duncan paid for on his plan, the filing stated. 

A captain in the Internal Affairs office was then directed to investigate and told Duncan that he “should request permission to be in the relationship through his chain of command,” the document read.

Duncan sent his supervisor a memo saying he was engaged to the woman, who sought to have her conviction expunged, and he “did not feel this is a conflict in any way of me performing my duties,” according to the filing.

In February 2018, the lawsuit states, Napoleon sent Duncan a memo in which he referred to a Sheriff’s Office standard of conduct that prevents officers from “personal associations” with known felons or others “who have a reputation in the community for involvement in felonious or criminal behavior.”

“I will not make an exception to this rule so that you may continue your relationship,” the sheriff wrote, according to the lawsuit.

As a result, Duncan called off his relationship. Soon after, he learned he was being charged with violating several department policies, the deputy’s attorneys assert. After an administrative review, a deputy chief recommended terminating Duncan, who had worked for the county since 1998, according to his lawsuit.

In April 2018, the Wayne County Deputy Sheriff’s Association filed a grievance, but Duncan “was so physically and emotionally sick from his termination that he could not attend the arbitration,” the filing stated.

Duncan’s lawyers claim other colleagues whose significant others had been convicted of crimes were never disciplined or fired. Pfannes wasn't investigated or penalized, either, for ties to his former sister-in-law, according to the lawsuit. 

Neither Pfannes nor attorneys representing the county and Napoleon immediately responded to requests for comment.

The lawsuit alleges Duncan’s constitutional rights were violated. It seeks a declaratory judgment as well as back pay, damages for lost earnings and legal fees.