Alternate grounds for officer termination sufficient to avoid Chapter 614 challenge
Baldridge v. Spring Branch Independent School District, No. 01-10-00852-CV (Tex. App. –Houston [1st Dist.] June 27, 2013)
This is a police officer termination case under Chapter 614 of the Texas Government Code which essentially states that disciplinary action cannot be taken against an officer in a non-civil service department without first having a complaint in writing and providing a copy of the complaint to the officer. The First Court of Appeals essentially held in this case that even if the procedures under Chapter 614 were not followed for one incident other legitimate reasons for termination existed, which is sufficient to justify the action.
Baldridge was an officer with the Spring Branch ISD (“District”). He responded to a call from a property owner noting that several softball players had damaged his property. The owner was not satisfied with the manner in which Baldridge responded and filed a written complaint with the Chief of Police. The investigation revealed unprofessional behavior by Baldridge, but he was unaware of the investigation and was never given a copy of the complaint. On his termination letter it listed the reason for his termination as being the softball park incident as well as other infractions including violating dress code by wearing a Bluetooth device while on duty. Baldridge sued for declaratory relief and reinstatement, but the court specifically noted that it was not interpreting his complaint as a request for back pay since such is barred by sovereign immunity. Both parties filed summary judgment motions. The trial court granted the District’s and Baldridge appealed.
The court first made a point to note that for purposes of the opinion, it was assuming that Chapter 614 applied to internal complaints as well as external complaints. It then noted that Baldridge was given a written counseling report regarding the Bluetooth incident and given an opportunity to respond. The court determined that even if the softball park complaint was not properly handled, the Bluetooth incident was under Chapter 614 and justification enough for the termination. As a result, the court affirmed the summary judgment for the District.
Two things to take away from this opinion are that if a department has multiple reasons for disciplinary action, make sure to list them all. Second, conservative wisdom is that departments should assume, as the court did, that internal complaints are also subject to Chapter 614, just to be safe.
If you would like to read this opinion click here.
UPDATE: On August 29, 2013 the appellate panel withdrew this above opinion and issued a new one. However, the reasoning and ultimate result did not change. The current opinion can be found at here.