Fire Fighter suspension upheld – Court holds violating state civil service rule sufficient even though no local rule violation was found

Christopher Jenkins v. City of Cedar Park, Texas, 03-13-00215-CV (Tex. App. – Austin, July 24, 2014).

This is a Chapter 143 civil service appeal from an indefinite suspension of a fire fighter where the Austin Court of Appeals affirmed the City’s plea to the jurisdiction.

Jenkins was employed as a fire fighter with the Cedar Park Fire Department. He received a charge for DWI and the Fire Chief indefinitely suspended him.  Jenkins appealed to a hearing examiner who upheld the suspension. Jenkins sued in district court, but the City filed a plea to the jurisdiction arguing Jenkins’ assertions were not that the examiner exceeded his jurisdiction, but that he disagreed with the result. The trial court granted the plea and Jenkins appealed.

The hearing examiner found Jenkins violated Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code §143.051 (listing grounds for removal or suspension commission rules may involve) in upholding the suspension but not any department local rule.  Jenkins argued that section does not provide any grounds for removal or suspension of a fire fighter but merely sets the parameters for the rules that a local commission may adopt.  The question for the court was whether a fire fighter could be suspended for violating §143.051 or whether he could only be suspended for violating a local rule adopted under that section. The court held Jenkins’ distinction is form over substance and that §143.051 is a “civil service rule” which can be the basis for discipline, even if no local rule adopts it or is found to be violated by the hearing examiner. The court examined the policy considerations and “absurd results” Jenkins’ reading would create and provided examples. Court found it important to note the notice letter to Jenkins specifically listed §143.051 and Jenkins did not argue he was unaware he was being charged with that as a violation.

The dissent argues a fire fighter can only be disciplined for violating a local rule, not a state statute. Citing statutory construction principles, the dissent reasoned that the statute is not ambiguous so the court should not resort to extra-textual assistance in its interpretation. And since a fire fighter can only be disciplined for violating local rules, and no local rule violation was found, the hearing examiner exceeded his authority.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Dissenting opinion click here.  Panel: Justice Puryear, Justice Goodwin, and Justice Field. Majority memorandum opinion by Justice Goodwin. Dissent by Justice Field. The attorneys listed for the City are Ms. Julia Gannaway, Ms. Bettye Lynn, Ms. Melissa H. Cranford, and Mr. Charles Rowland.  The attorneys listed for Jenkins are Mr. Matt Bachop and Mr. B. Craig Deats.

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