Texas Supreme Court changes the standards for terminating police officers under Chapter 614

Colorado County, et al., v Marc Staff, NO. 15-0912 (Tex., February 3, 2017).

This is a Chapter 614 law enforcement termination case where the Texas Supreme Court changed some of the standards for investigating, disciplining, and terminating police officers.  The Court reversed the judgment of the court of appeals and rendered judgment in favor of the employer County. This is a significant case with a detailed analysis so the summary is a bit long.

Colorado County Deputy Sheriff Marc Staff was terminated from the Sheriff’s Department. While an at-will employee his termination notice listed incidents were Staff’s behavior with members of the public was improper. The focus of the notice detailed a complaint where the County Attorney advised the Sheriff of Staff’s behavior during a traffic stop. The video behavior was investigated and the investigating lieutenant recommended termination. Staff was listed as “argumentative” and abusive.  He further unnecessarily arrested an otherwise cooperative motorist. Staff was provided the recommendation by the lieutenant and told he had thirty days to appeal the termination recommendation to the Sheriff for a final order. Sheriff Wied advised Staff to “articulate all of his responses to his termination and the reasons for his appeal.” Each incident had been identified in the recommendation with factual details. Staff appealed but rather than contesting the substantive grounds for termination or attempting to contextualize his behavior, Staff’s appeal complained of procedural irregularities in the process leading to his discharge.  Sheriff Wied upheld the termination and Staff sued the County and Sheriff for declaratory relief, injunctive relief and monetary damages.  He asserted the County and Sheriff violated Chapter 614 of the Texas Government Code with the procedure used for termination. The central theme of Staff’s argument was that an internal report based on an external complaint alleging misconduct is insufficient to satisfy the statutory requirements. Sheriff Wied asserted Staff was terminated as an employee-at-will, but in the alternative, the process utilized satisfied Chapter 614. The trial court granted the County and Sheriff’s motions for summary judgment. The court of appeals reversed and asserted the Sheriff violated Chapter 614. Summary found here.   The Texas Supreme Court granted Sheriff Wied’s petition for review.

Texas Government Code §614.023 states “(a) A copy of a signed complaint against a law enforcement officer…shall be given to the officer or employee within a reasonable time after the complaint is filed. (b) Disciplinary action may not be taken against the officer or employee unless a copy of the signed complaint is given to the officer or employee…”  The Court first held that “[a]lthough Sheriff Wied could have discharged Staff for any reason or no reason, Chapter 614, Subchapter B nevertheless applies when an at-will employer terminates for cause that derives from allegations in a complaint of misconduct instead of terminating at will for no cause..”  In other words, if no complaint was filed against Staff, the Sheriff could simply fire him for no reason.  However, since a complaint was filed, Chapter 614 applies and the procedures must be followed. The “caused based” process “helps ensure that cause-based removals of a specified nature bear a modicum of proof and that the affected employee has notice of the basis for removal.”  The Court then considered, “as a matter of first impression, the kind of ‘complaint’ and ‘person making the complaint’ that is necessary to both activate and satisfy the statute’s procedural safeguards.” After applying various statutory construction principles, the Court held the person making the complaint does not need to be the “victim” of the alleged conduct; it may be an investigator or supervisor. The Court noted in a separate section that some courts of appeals improperly connected the definition of “complaint” in Chapter 614 with a “complaint” under the civil service laws in Tex. Loc. Gov’t Code chapter 143. However, they are not the same. Under the Court’s definition of “complaint” for Chapter 614 it determined Sheriff Wied followed the requirements.  [Comment: For attorneys practicing in this area, the Court’s definition and explanation of what qualifies as a proper and sufficient complaint can be extremely helpful.].  In this case, Staff received the signed Deficiency Notice within two days of the initiation of an internal investigation. He suffered no disciplinary action until the complaint was in hand.  However, the Court noted “[n]othing in the statute requires the complaint to be served before discipline is imposed or precludes disciplinary action while an investigation is ongoing. Nor does the statute require an opportunity to be heard before disciplinary action may be taken.” Staff had ample opportunity to marshal any evidence and provide his explanation to the Sheriff. As a result, the Sheriff complied with Chapter 614. The Court reversed and rendered in favor of the Sheriff.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Justice Guzman issued the opinion of the Court. The docket page with attorney information can be found here.