It took a threat of sanctions against the Merced County sheriff and his management team to complete the task, but Merced County Correctional Officer John Watters reported back to work on September 8, 2009, after a two-year ordeal.
Thanks to the assistance of the Legal Defense Fund, and his counsel, this author, Watters was welcomed back to his position by the Merced County Sheriff’s Employees Association and its members.
Watters had been employed by the county for approximately nine years when, in September 2007, he was placed on paid administrative leave. The allegation against Watters was that he had made certain derogatory comments at work after he learned that he had been denied a promotion.
In the investigation conducted by the department, most of the “witnesses” agreed that they did not recall, or did not hear, what Watters had allegedly said, but that it was just “John talking.” Nonetheless, the department proposed to terminate Watters, and he went to his Skelly hearing.
At the Skelly hearing, the county’s Skelly officer made a number of odd comments about Watters, most of which were unrelated to the allegations against him, then announced that he was upholding the proposed discipline and would be terminating Watters. Counsel orally advised the Skelly officer that Watters would be appealing.
Remarkably, the Notice of Termination that was issued to Watters, following the Skelly hearing, stated the following, in its entirety:
“Mr. Watters, you are hereby notified that pursuant to Section 8 of the Merced County Human Resources Rules and Regulations that you are terminated from your employment with the Merced County Sheriff’s Department effective today, October 29, 2007 at 9:00 p.m.
“In order to receive our [sic] final paycheck all departmental issued equipment must be turned in. Any questions regarding your termination please contact Commander Thoreson.”
No grounds for termination were stated, nor did the “Notice” even refer to the Skelly letter which Watters had received.
At the time the termination occurred, the county’s Human Resources Rules provided that hearings on disciplinary matters would be conducted by a judge appointed by the State Personnel Board.
Unfortunately, when Watters filed his written appeal immediately after receiving notice of the final decision, the appeal was “misplaced,” and it took several months for the county to even acknowledge that an appeal had been filed. The matter was then sent to the State Personnel Board for assignment to a judge.
Once Watters’ counsel (this author) was notified that the State Personnel Board had in fact been contacted, a Motion to Dismiss all charges was filed, based on the lack of notice. The matter was set for hearing on July 1, 2008, but that hearing was then cancelled by the State Personnel Board due to budgetary considerations.
Watters’ counsel then arranged to have a Special Motion hearing on July 18, 2008, to hear the Motion to Dismiss. At the hearing, even though the county had not filed any opposition to the motion, county counsel appeared and objected to the board’s jurisdiction to hear the motion, claiming that there was no provision for a judge to hear such motions.
After county counsel finally acknowledged that any judge appointed by the State Personnel Board (SPB) had the right to hear motions to dismiss, she requested seven days to file additional argument. Over appellant’s objection, the seven-day extension was granted, but no written argument was ever filed.
Another judge was then appointed by the SPB to hear the matter, and she questioned whether or not the county intended to file a written brief as requested. After some additional delay, a Brief was filed, then our opposition was filed, and a ruling was issued on November 5, 2008, granting Watters’ motion to dismiss and ordering him fully reinstated.
In part, the ruling was based upon the erroneous conclusion that Watters was a peace officer, and was therefore immunized from further disciplinary action by application of Government Code Section 3304(d) (the one-year Peace Officers’ Bill of Rights statute of limitations).
The county immediately filed a Petition for Writ of Mandate, naming Watters as the respondent. When it was pointed out to the county that Watters was improperly named as the respondent, because he could not be a respondent in mandate, the county amended its action to name the administrative law judge (ALJ ) as the respondent, but failed to properly serve the ALJ or the SPB.
Realizing that the court was likely to allow the county to amend its Petition, Watters nonetheless moved to dismiss the Amended Petition for Writ of Mandate on the grounds of improper parties and improper service. That motion was granted.
As anticipated, the county then refiled its Petition, naming the State Personnel Board as the respondent in the case, and the matter was then set for hearing.
Watters and his counsel appeared at the hearing on August 3, 2009, only to learn that all judges in Merced County had disqualified themselves for unstated reasons, and that an out-of-county judge would have to be appointed.
After some additional delay, the matter was set before the Honorable John DeGroot, Madera County Superior Court judge, on August 24, 2009.
The county argued that Watters had been given all of his Skelly rights, an assertion which, the court noted, Watters did not dispute. The county then argued that Watters was not a peace officer covered by POBOR, a fact that Watters also did not dispute.
The court repeatedly advised county counsel that the issue in question was one of notice, since the Notice of Termination did not state why Watters was being fired. Furthermore, Watters argued that, under Brown v. State Personnel Board, the county’s ordinance did not permit the county to amend its action against Watters, so he was therefore entitled to immediate reinstatement. The court so ruled.
Just when Watters thought it was over, he received notice to report back to work, but instead of being reinstated, he was served with a new Notice of Proposed Termination, which was identical to the one that he had previously received. Bennett & Sharpe notified county counsel that such an action was expressly contrary to the court’s verbal order, but county counsel refused to accept that premise until a transcript of the hearing had been obtained. A transcript was obtained and sent to county counsel, who claimed that she did not read the order that way.
At that point, Watters’ attorneys provided the court with an amended proposed judgment, explicitly stating that the county was not permitted to bring another disciplinary action based on the prior events, which the court immediately signed.
County counsel was notified that Watters’ counsel had obtained copies of the order and provided them to process servers, for the purpose of serving the sheriff, the undersheriff, and the two commanders who had sat in the courtroom while the court’s order was pronounced, with the express intent of seeking contempt citations if the department continued to disobey the court’s order. At that time, Watters was finally reinstated.
Coming as it did, when finding alternative work was extremely difficult, Watters’ termination was very unfortunate. While he and his counsel firmly believe that, were the matter to have gone to hearing, he would have prevailed, there was no reason to do that until the actual charges against him had been specified.
On numerous occasions, the county had the opportunity to reinstate Watters, pay him his back pay, and refile a proper action, but the Sheriff’s Department stubbornly refused to admit that it might have been wrong. Watters has expressed great gratitude toward the Legal Defense Fund for supporting him in this matter, and to Bennett & Sharpe for their persistence, accessibility, and constant monitoring of the department’s attempts to maneuver around its legal obligations.
PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.
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- Adam Laird Eureka POA
Dear PORAC Legal Defense Fund, This email has been weighing on my heart and should have been sent a long time ago. However, time seems to move fast even though your life has been put on hold. I have been on administrative leave since December of 2012. In April of 2013, I was arrested for the performance of my duties. Since the administrative side this case has not been resolved, I won't be getting into specific details regarding my case. However, I will say that I never thought that my life would turned upside down by doing the job that I love, and doing it in a way that I had been trained. I have been in Law Enforcement for 10 years, and I have been paying my monthly dues all along. I never really understood how important paying dues might be for me, I just thought it was the "cost of business". After being arrested, I understood the real worth of that investment. Because of politics, my case was given the "full court press". On January 3rd of 2014, the case against me was dismissed. It took no less than 5 experts to convince the Humboldt County District Attorney's Office to request dismissal. The time, effort, and money that this case cost couldn't have been endured by me as the sole provider of a family of four. LDF was there, big time. The panel attorney's under LDF were the best in the business. In the uncertain time during the criminal process, I couldn't have imagined how much help they could be. What a relief to know that LDF had my back. I am used to defending those who can't defend themselves. That's my job. When I was defenseless, LDF and the attorneys assigned to my case were my advocates and defenders. I thank you. My criminal attorney said it best at the conclusion of my criminal case: "Adam and his family are thankful that they can now move forward. The evidence showing Sgt. Laird was innocent was overwhelming. The expert EPD hired said that the suspect was rising up when Sgt. Laird pushed him back to the ground. The two experts that the DA’s office hired said that the force was reasonable and appropriate. The defensive tactics instructor who trained Adam said he acted consistent with his training in apprehending a high risk suspect in a dangerous situation. In total, five separate police practices experts reviewed the case and unanimously said Sgt. Laird acted appropriately". "It is hard to imagine what it must be like to risk your life apprehending a known gang member only to be charged with using excessive force when the suspect stated that he did not even feel the contact at issue. It is simply bizarre that Sgt. Laird was ever charged with a crime". Thank you. My family and I will forever be grateful for your service, Sergeant Adam Laird
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Thank God for the L.D.F.
- Scott Cox Tulare Co DSA
I just want to say [my representative] did a great job! Thank you.
- Jack Ellis Lompoc POA
An excellent plan. Very valuable to its members.
- Brian Schopf Elk Grove POA
Keep up the good work.
- Andrew Hill Statewide University PA
I have used this law firm for union related business for the last several years. It was a no brainer to call them for LDF.
- Joseph Barrett LA Airport POA
I was very well represented by a professional. I felt well represented and got great advice.
- David Heller Yolo County DSA
The charges against me, if sustained, would have likely ended my LE career. I was rightfully exonerated on all charges. I was well represented by [My Representative] and thank him for a job well done!!
- Scot Hicks Humbolt County DSO
My experience was made much less stressful thanks to the LDF representation.
- Cherie Rye Lyon Co SEA
I am very happy with the service I received from LDF. I am grateful that our association includes LDF as part of our dues.
- Korey Lankow Assn Highway Patrol of Arizona
Outstanding service from bottom-to-top.
- Rodney Kirkland Oakland POA
Being a police officer in the city of Oakland, I appreciate the services that are offered.
- Rich Stepper Montana PPA
[ My representative ] was very knowledgeable regarding dept & legal rules regarding officer involved shooting. Provided good legal advice & was very supportive.
- Marshall Henderson Vancouver Police Officers Guild
I have used LDF in 3 OIS's. Each time I have been very well taken care of. I highly recommend [ representative ] and the PORAC system. Well done and thank you.
- Matthew Gardner Colorado PPA
I would not want to be an officer without this coverage. It was great to have it and kept my mind at ease.
- Alfredo Hernandez El Centro POA
[My representative] was very attentive, [informative] and knowledgeable. He spoke very clearly and explained things in ways easy to understand. [He] made me feel like he truly cared about what was going on with this case and me. Not to mention [he] was funny and witty, traits which made him trustworthy and someone who would stand by me and other police officers.
- Byron Kies Santa Barbara Co DSA
Everything was great!
- Chris Moore Palo Alto POA
No Complaints. Great Resource.
- Dan McDow San Luis Obispo POA
[My representative] is the poster face representative of the greatest attorney (representative) that anyone could possibly ask for. She gets a 12 out of 10 star rating. Nobody works harder.
- Jon Seabron Oceanside POA
[My Representative] was the best and if I ever need to call al lawyer again for anything, I'll be calling her.
- Gina Romines San Joaquin Co Corr POA
I couldn't have been more satisfied with the representative!
- James Beckman Miracosta College POA
Excellent service everytime.
- Robert Glock Oakland POA
I am always satisfied with LDF and all their representatives.
- John M. Laser Oceanside POA
[My representative] always took my calls or returned them within hours. Put my mind at ease and kept me well informed. LDF is well served by this law firm!
- Caitlin Collins Tiburon POA
[My representative] made himself available 7 days a week understanding that those were my needs. He was very well informed and kept me on the right track and in the right frame of mind.
- Brad Young Oakland POA
[My representative] is an excellent attorney and I am very happy he picks up the phone and answers my questions whenever possible.
- Miguel Masso Oakland POA
[I'm very satisfied and grateful] for LDF representing me. My attorney was professional, honest, and very knowledgeable of his profession. During these tough times my attorney would contact me on a regular basis to see how I was doing. This was obviously not part of his job description, but it kept me at ease and not losing my mind. I'm thankful that I was represented by LDF.
- Nestor Hernandez San Diego POA
This is a great program designed to protect LEO’s in need
- Linda Mendez Imperial Co Prob and Corr
I'm very pleased with the services offered by the LDF. I feel so fortunate to enjoy the benefits of having the membership. The services provided by LDF to its members is simply 110% professional, supportive, great!! LDF care for its members is reflected by the quality of Best Law Firm offered, simply the best!
- Kenneth S. Blonski East Bay Regional Parks PMA
I was very pleased with my representative.
- Larry Fitch Shasta Co DSA
My LDF rep was great, always returned my calls quickly and kept me up to date with what was going on with the case. Thank you.
- Keith Braden Los Angeles School Police Mgmt Assn
Great work, no complaints.
- Juan Espinoza Fresno DSA
[My representative] did a great job. He is both thorough and well educated. I would use him again.
- Martha Tschetter Carson City Sheriffs PA
The LDF process was painless and I was able to get immediate representation in an urgent time of need. Thank you LDF
- Christopher Wirth A F G E Border Patrol
LDF referred me to [ representative ] in Spokane, WA. [ Representative ] did an outstanding job representing me. Thank you very much for the referral ! I would not be employed any longer had it not been for [ representative ] and his legal team.”
- Anthony Gregori Sonoma Co Jr College P O A
Excellent work and well worth it.
- Roman Fernandez Inglewood POA
My representatives were always well-prepared and organized for hearings and meetings. Their efforts, hard work and full support is truly appreciated.
- Derwin Longmire Oakland POA
Outstanding [law firm] - incredible firm. And, LDF was easy to work and correspond with.
- Douglas Mansker Bakersfield POA
(My attorney) is a very good attorney, despite his young age. He kept me well informed throughout my legal matter and returned phone calls in a prompt manner. I was very satisfied with his performance and would not hesitate to be represented by him again.
- George Fierro El Monte POA
I am a firm believer that LDF serves an essential part in the assistance to protect an officer's POBR & in the integrity of an investigation or complaint. I highly recommend the law office of [My Represenative].
- Christine Farmer Tehama Co DSA
Mine was a fairly simple situation and I may not have needed representative. I am glad I called for help, it gave me peace of mind and reassurance.
- Katherine Comesana Mountain View POA
Hope to never in a situation again, however, glad to know that LDF is there to help.
- William DeWitt CPPA
Everything was awesome...could not be happier!
- Alex Camarillo LASchool P A
[My Representative] did an excellent job with my case. He was very professional and kept me well informed throughout this case. Thank you for an awesome job.
- Sherri Coral Riverside Community College
He was very professional. I trusted him to defend and he did! I am very thankful he was here for me.
- Anthony Russo Clark Co School District
The members of my Association are very pleased with the level of representation that PORAC has given to us. As the President I can not thank you all enough.
- Phillip Flores Oxnard POA
My attorney was excellent. I would use her again.
- Gilbert Salazar Montebello POA
Can’t say enough. Both representatives that I had in 2016 were excellent. ( My attorney ) made himself available to me in late night hours, which made me feel comfortable and at ease. This program is essential to us in law enforcement.
- Cathleen Weldon Siskiyou Correctional POA
Very Comforting to have a knowledgeable person looking out for my best inerests. Thx!
- Stephen Woodward Palm Springs POA
Great job by my LDF lawyer. I have had to use them several times over my 20 year career and their service is invaluable.
- Robert Morales Rialto PBA
I was very pleased with the service I received
- John Tinder Chino POA
Having an LDF attorney who is experienced, knowledgeable and professional is an outstanding quality. [My representative ]exhibit all of these qualities and more. They are outstanding and I would not entrust my career to anyone else!
- Brian Markert Lakewood Police Indp Guild
I feel that I was very well represented by the LDF regarding a fatal officer involved shooting. Both attorneys assigned to assist me - our guild attorney plus a criminal defense attorney - were very aggressive and helpful. Their work was instrumental in helping me to navigate the criminal and internal investigations so that I could return to full duty status.
- Tigran Topadzhikyan Glendale POA
[My representative] is an excellent attorney. I would use him again. He communicates with his clients and is very competent.
- Paul Hernandez LA Gen Services POA Inc.
[My Representative] was very helpful in my situation and I can't thank him enough.
- Shandon Murphy San Mateo POA
Great work! Thank you so much!
- Emery Eccle Culver City POA
LDF is THE most important asset / resource that police officers have. "Thank you" to all involved and keep up the good work!
- Jeff Stanley Upland POA
Excellent program, no one should be without this coverage.
- Anthony Zack Vernon POA
This was the first time in my twenty-five year career that I had to use the services of my legal defense fund. My LDF Representative was extremely courteous, informative and professional.. She addressed all of my concerns and answered all of my questions. She did an overall outstanding job of representing me and handling my case. I could not have been any more pleased or satisfied with the job she did! I would definitely request her to represent me in the future if I needed representation.
- Gregg Palmer San Joaquin Co Corr POA
Everything was explained very well prior to my questioning. I was not worried at all during the investigation. Very professional and a great asset to its members.
- Stacey Bonilla San Mateo County DSA
[My Represenative] is an excellent attorney. He is very professional yet personable and I would definitely use him again. Thank you!
- David Baker Placerville POA
My experience through dealing with this matter was horrific. Without the efforts of the LDF and more specifically [my representative], I would most certainly have fallen victim to a corrupt and unethical administration. The LDF has saved my career and brought me justice.
- Todd Costa Santa Clara Co DSA
This was my first Internal Affairs investigation, my lawyer walked me through every step and answered all of my questions, without my lawyer's advice, I would have been lost throughout the investigation and a complete disadvantage against my department.