First District Court of Appeals holds deputy was improperly terminated since “complaint” under §614.022 was not signed by victim but by supervisor

Marc Staff v. Colorado County , Texas and Sheriff R. H. “Curly ” Wied, 01-14-00323-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [1st Dist.], August 18, 2015)

This is a law enforcement employment case where the First District Court of Appeals reversed the granting of a summary judgment for the county regarding whether it properly informed a deputy of an investigation prior to termination.

Staff was a Colorado County Sheriff deputy. Lieutenant Troy Neisner began an investigation of Staff for unprofessional conduct at a traffic stop, and he ultimately informed Staff that the Sheriff’s Department was terminating his employment. Staff filed an administrative appeal with Sheriff Wied which was denied. The Sheriff argued Staff was an employee at will and his termination was not based on a single incident or any complaint.  Staff  sued seeking a declaration that Colorado County and Sheriff Wied had violated Government Code §614.022, which requires complaints against peace officers to be in writing and signed by the person making the complaint, and §614.023, which requires a copy of the complaint to be provided to the officer. Both parties filed opposing summary judgments. The trial court granted Sheriff Wied’s motion and denied Staff.  Staff appealed.

Government Code Chapter 614 addresses a narrow category of circumstances in which a complaint is made against a peace officer or fire fighter, and it requires a specified procedure to be followed before the employee may be terminated. Thus, the fact that a county is an at-will employer does not preclude application of the chapter. Analyzing various cases and comparing §§614.022 and .023 to civil service law comparisons, the court determined the notice provided to Staff after the investigation was not a “complaint.”  The “victim” of the traffic stop orally complained, but never signed a written complaint.  It was not Lieutenant Neisner who was complaining since the complaint and conduct originated outside of the department. The court noted there would be a difference if the complaint had originated inside the department.  Further, the notice of violation was provided to Staff on the same day as his termination, which did not give him time or the opportunity to respond. These statutory provisions prevent the impairment of a peace officer’s ability to investigate or defend against the complaints of misconduct made against him and protects peace officers from disciplinary action based on unsubstantiated allegations of misconduct. The Sheriff violated these provisions and therefore the trial court erred in granting summary judgment for the Sheriff. The court rendered as to Staff’s liability claim and remanded for a determination of attorney’s fees for Staff.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Keyes, Justice Huddle and Justice Lloyd.  Opinion by Justice Keyes. The attorney listed for Staff is Daniel Krieger.  The attorney listed for Wied and the County is Jason Eric Magee.