Contra Costa Deputy Sheriff Gets Job Back
After two long years, former Contra Costa Deputy Sheriff Michael Cauraugh has recently won his job back at arbitration before John L. Saltonstall, Jr. Sheriff Warren Rupf terminated Deputy Cauraugh on August 23, 1994, for allegedly pointing his service weapon at a co-worker while both were awaiting the commencement of a departmental briefing.
Cauraugh was represented by Phil Ginsburg of the San Francisco law office of Carroll, Burdick & McDonough. Arbitrator Saltonstall ruled that the county failed to sustain its burden of proving the alleged conduct. He opined as follows:
“I conclude that there is a reasonable doubt as to whether in fact the grievant deliberately pointed his gun at the head of [his co-worker] during the course of their altercation on June 2, 1994, and therefore that the grievant’s discharge cannot be upheld. The grievant’s discharge on August 23, 1994, was not for just cause. His remedy is that he is to be reinstated with full back pay, fringe benefits and full seniority, but minus six months and minus appropriate deductions for other moneys received during the time of his separation from the county’s employ.”
Significantly because the county accused Cauraugh of felonious conduct (i.e., waiving his weapon at a co-worker in a hostile manner), the county was required to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt.
Michael Cauraugh joined the Contra Costa County Sheriff’s Office in 1988. While he had been disciplined previously, Cauraugh’s evaluations left no mistake that he was a well-liked, well respected and accomplished deputy.
On June 2, 1994, Cauraugh arrived early at the Sheriffs Department’s substation for a pre-dawn briefing involving numerous co-workers, convened for the purpose of executing a search warrant. Prior to the commencement of the briefing, Cauraugh and several of the other deputies bantered and barbed with each other, as they were often accustomed to doing.
After a couple of deputies directed a humorous barb at Cauraugh, he removed his gun from its holster, and, in a non-threatening, good-natured manner, waved it loosely with one hand in the air in the direction of the individuals bantering with him. At the time, Cauraugh was leaning back in his chair in a relaxed position and his feet were on the desk. The gun was exposed briefly.
The act of jokingly removing one’s weapon from one’s holster, known as “breaking leather” was in no way a unique gesture among officers at the Sheriff’s Department, particularly those who, like Cauraugh was stationed at the West County Bay Station. From across the room, a fellow deputy, and ultimately, the complaining party, sharply directed Cauraugh to put his gun away.
He did. That deputy later accused him of pointing his weapon at her in a deliberate and threatening manner.
While Cauraugh acknowledged “breaking leather” he was not subsequently terminated for this activity. His Notice of Termination stated as follows:
“You drew your firearm and deliberately pointed it at another deputy sheriff, causing that deputy sheriff to be threatened.”
The Winning Arguments
Ginsburg persuasively demonstrated that Cauraugh was not terminated for merely removing his weapon and engaging in horseplay, but rather because he was specifically alleged to have pointed his gun in a hostile and threatening manner at a co-worker. Therefore, Ginsburg argued, the county was obligated to prove its case with proof beyond a reasonable doubt.
Through testimony and exhibits, Ginsburg successfully demonstrated that the complainant’s account of what transpired left too many questions unanswered, too many contradictions and inconsistencies, and was just too strongly disputed to support Cauraugh’s termination.
Even though the complainant alleged that Cauraugh pointed the gun in her face for ten seconds in a violent manner, and despite the fact that 13 individuals were present in the briefing room that morning, only one other individual claimed to have witnessed the event as the complainant described it. The only other witness who observed the interaction between Cauraugh and the complainant testified definitively that Cauraugh never pointed his weapon at her in a deliberate manner.
The Arbitrator’s Decision
The arbitrator agreed with Ginsburg’s position that because the county’s discharge of Cauraugh was based on an allegation that surmounted to accusing him of committing a felony, the county was forced to shoulder a very heavy burden of proof – i.e., proof beyond a reasonable doubt (citing, Elkouri & Elkouri, “How Arbitration Works,” (4th Ed.), 661—663).
Arbitrator Saltonstall then pointed out that of the five witnesses produced by the county, only two claimed to have witnessed the incident in question. Cauraugh and Ginsburg produced seven witnesses, of whom two claimed to have witnessed the incident.
Ultimately, the arbitrator concluded that county counsel was unable to shake the testimony of Cauraugh’s corroborating witness on cross-examination. The arbitrator concluded that given the totality of the evidence presented, the department could not satisfy its burden of proof to sustain termination for the alleged conduct.
Cauraugh returned to work on December 2. He looks forward to a long and productive “second life” at the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department.