Witness statement counts as sec. 614.023 complaint says Houston Court of Appeals

 

Harris County Sheriff’s Civil Service Commission v. Louis Guthrie 14-12-00474-CV (Tex. App. – Houston [14th Dist.], February 13, 2014)

This is an appeal from a district court order reversing the Harris County Sheriff’s Civil Service Commission’s order affirming the termination of a deputy after he engaged in and interfered with an investigation into the theft of $17 out of his wife’s car at a local car wash. The 14th Court of Appeals reversed the district court order and remanded.

Essentially, Guthrie’s wife reported $17 stolen from her car while at a local car wash. The theft was reported to and investigated by Humble PD. However, Guthrie arrived at the scene and attempted to take over. Ultimately, he caused at least four sheriff’s deputies to respond to the scene even though Humble PD officers already were present. After receiving verbal complaints about the handling, Guthrie’s supervisor, Major Hitchcock, signed a letter addressed to Internal Affairs who conducted an investigation and obtained witness statements.   Guthrie received a proposed termination letter and was given the opportunity to respond before the letter became official.  Guthrie appealed to the Commission, which affirmed the termination. Guthrie appealed to district court which held that the Sheriff’s department failed to follow §614.023 of the Texas Government Code requiring a signed complaint to be provided to the officer before disciplinary action is taken and the Commissioned appealed.

The 14th Court of Appeals first held that a “signed complaint” under §614.023 could only be a complaint written and signed by a person claiming to be the victim of misconduct. However, the evidence established the car wash owner’s “complaint” was for the temporary shutting down of the business, which was not the basis of termination. The termination letter listed several violations of civil service regulations including untruthfulness regarding the incident and a gross overreaction. As a result, he received a proposed termination letter listing the grounds alleged and was given the opportunity to respond. Further, Guthrie was provided the detailed signed statements of car wash employees, including the general manager, which spelled out the factual basis demonstrating the overreaction and untruthful behavior. As a result, the court held the signed statement qualified as a complaint under §614.023. The district court’s order is reversed.

If you would like to read this opinion click here. Panel: Justice Boyce, Justice Jamison,  and Justice Busby.  Opinion by Justice Jamison. The attorney listed for the Commission is Lisa Rice Hulsey.  The attorney listed for Guthrie is John P. Denholm.