The Louisiana Supreme Court reversed a district court’s decision to reinstate an assistant fire chief who was fired for misrepresenting his whereabouts during the workday.
The plaintiff was employed as the assistant fire chief with the St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 4. On Feb. 19, 2016, the plaintiff agreed to retrieve a repaired ambulance unit from Hattiesburg. He told his supervisor, the provisional fire chief (the chief), that before he could do so, he first had to attend a speaking engagement with a ladies’ group that would last about 30 minutes.
At 1:08 p.m. that day, the wife of a fire equipment operator saw the plaintiff, his wife and his lawyer at the La Madeleine restaurant and took a photograph of them. She later sent a text message containing this photograph to her husband. At 2:30 p.m., the district fire chief (the district chief) told the chief that the plaintiff had not yet returned and offered to pick up the ambulance himself. The chief declined the offer.
At 2:37 p.m., the chief called the plaintiff and inquired as to his whereabouts. The plaintiff advised the chief that he was headed back to the station. The plaintiff reported to the chief’s office at 3 p.m., at which time the chief gave him the address to the ambulance repair shop. The chief asked the plaintiff about his meeting with the ladies’ group, and the plaintiff told him that its members asked about his career and that he would never participate in another such meeting.
At 3:07 p.m., the chief received a text message from an unknown number that contained a photograph taken of the plaintiff at the restaurant. When the plaintiff returned to the station, he confronted the fire equipment operator. The plaintiff stood over him and demanded that he disclose who had taken the photograph.
The district chief put together a timeline of events of that day, and the chief sent the plaintiff a written notice of investigation into the incident and placed him on administrative leave without pay. Unbeknownst to the district, 10 days later the plaintiff conducted a “factory reset” of his employer-issued mobile phone, which permanently erased certain data, including text messages.
The district thereafter interrogated the plaintiff with his lawyer present. He claimed that he met with a local ladies’ group at a yogurt shop next to the La Madeleine restaurant and could not remember how long the meeting lasted, nor who was present at the meeting. His description of the meeting was vague. The plaintiff was on duty during the interrogation and was supposed to have his cellphone on him, but he said that he did not bring it to avoid interruptions. When he returned his cellphone to district officials, they discovered that it had been reset.
The district decided to terminate the plaintiff’s employment, and the plaintiff appealed to the civil service board. The board upheld the termination, finding that the plaintiff’s conduct involved untruthfulness to a supervisor and untruthfulness in an investigation, and that the plaintiff destroyed evidence by resetting his cellphone.
The plaintiff filed a petition for judicial review and appeal to a local Louisiana district court, which reversed the board’s decision. While the court found that enough evidence existed to support the board’s findings of untruthfulness, it found no rational basis for the board’s determination that the plaintiff destroyed evidence. It further found that the plaintiff’s untruthfulness, standing alone, did not justify termination.
On appeal, the Louisiana Supreme Court found that the district court had exceeded its authority when it sought to lessen the penalty issued by the board while agreeing with its untruthfulness findings. It found that the district court was trying to usurp the board’s discretion to decide what discipline to impose.
A dissenting justice disagreed and argued that termination was disproportionate to the misconduct. Yet the majority overturned the district court and upheld the plaintiff’s termination.
Meiners v. St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 4, La. Sup. Ct., 2020-CC-00491 (Oct. 20, 2020).
Professional Pointer: Public employers must carefully support disciplinary decisions with both evidence of the alleged misconduct and justifications for the severity of the discipline imposed.
Jeffrey Rhodes is an attorney with McInroy, Rigby & Rhodes LLP in Arlington, Va.