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By PORAC | May 1, 2016 | Posted in PORAC LDF News

Reinstated (Again): Arbitrator Finds Grover Beach Officer Fit for Duty

Principal Attorney
Berry Wilkinson Law Group

In an effort to avoid having to reinstate Santino “Sonny” Lopez after he successfully defeated his 2010 disciplinary termination, the Grover Beach Police Department ordered that he submit to a psychological fitness-for-duty examination before its handpicked “independent” expert. The finding from that retaliatory examination has now been overturned, and Lopez has (once again) been ordered returned to work.

This Kafkaesque saga began in February 2010, when Lopez discharged his Taser during the rapid rescue of a kidnapped baby. Instead of hailing him as a hero for safely and quickly reuniting the baby with her mother, the Department decided that Lopez’s report did not match the video recorded by his TaserCam, and charged him with untruthfulness.

Even after he was exonerated following two separate intensive reviews of the misconduct allegations by both a hearing officer and the San Luis Obispo Superior Court (see April 2013 PORAC LE News article “Court Rejects Dishonesty and Excessive Force Charges, Grover Beach Police Officer Reinstated”), the City still refused to return Lopez to active duty. Rather, the Police Chief repackaged his concerns about Lopez’s integrity and trustworthiness as a fitness-for-duty issue, and hired Dr. Gordon Wolf to re-evaluate Lopez’s testimony during the earlier termination appeal hearing to determine whether Lopez met POST Psychological Screening Dimension 6 for Integrity/Ethics.

Dr. Wolf intensively interviewed Lopez for two days and administered two psychological tests, but was unable to find any basis upon which to hold that Lopez was unfit for duty. Dr. Wolf then received from the Chief 1,900 pages of “supplemental” information that included a copy of the termination hearing record and a detailed analysis of why the Chief thought Lopez had lied during the original termination proceeding. It was only after Dr. Wolf reviewed this additional material that he found Lopez psychologically unfit for duty. Based on that finding, the City again terminated Lopez’s employment.

Lopez appealed the unfit finding, presenting evidence that he had successfully passed three separate psychological fitness-for-duty examinations during his employment, including his pre-employment psychological, an examination ordered by the Department in 2000 that was performed by Dr. Susan Sax-Clifford and one conducted in September 2014 by Dr. Paul S.D. Berg, Psy.D.

A three-day hearing was held before independent Arbitrator Hugo Rossitter to determine whether the finding by Dr. Gordon Wolf should be upheld. As noted by the arbitrator in his decision: “I am faced with the contrasting and opposite conclusions by two experts [Dr. Wolf and Dr. Berg], both of whom have decades of experience in administering FFDE exams, as well as pre-employment and other psychological examinations.”

The arbitrator ultimately found Dr. Wolf’s unfit finding was unjustified, ordered that it be reversed and set aside, and mandated that Lopez be reinstated to his position as a police officer with full back pay and benefits. Sonny Lopez is grateful to the PORAC Legal Defense Fund for having recognized that this post-reinstatement psychological fitness-for-duty examination was simply a backdoor, sham effort to avoid compliance with the Superior Court decision mandating his reinstatement.

About the Author

Alison Berry Wilkinson has been providing effective, quality representation to PORAC members in civil, criminal, disciplinary and collective bargaining matters for over 25 years. Her firm, the Berry Wilkinson Law Group, focuses on all aspects of public safety labor and employment law, with a special emphasis on the representation of peace officers in complex disciplinary and civil cases.