Searching over 5,500,000 cases.


searching
Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.

Bell v. City of Lake Charles

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Third Circuit

April 20, 2017

THOMAS J. BELL, SR.
v.
THE CITY OF LAKE CHARLES

         APPEAL FROM THE FOURTEENTH JUDICIAL DISTRICT COURT PARISH OF CALCASIEU, NO. 2015-4786 HONORABLE SHARON D. WILSON, DISTRICT JUDGE

          Billy E. Loftin, Jr. Lofrin, Cain & LeBlanc, L.L.C. COUNSEL FOR DEFENDANT/APPELLANT: The City of Lake Charles.

          Todd S. Clemons Todd Clemons & Associates COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: Thomas J. Bell, Sr.

          Adam P. Johnson Johnson & Vercher, L.L.C. COUNSEL FOR PLAINTIFF/APPELLEE: Thomas J. Bell, Sr.

          Court composed of Marc T. Amy, D. Kent Savoie, and Van H. Kyzar, Judges.

          VAN H. KYZAR JUDGE

         The defendant, the City of Lake Charles, appeals from a district court judgment reversing the decision of the Lake Charles Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board to uphold the termination of the plaintiff, Thomas J. Bell, Sr., from the Lake Charles Police Department, and ordering his immediate reinstatement with back pay. For the following reasons, we reverse and reinstate the decision of the Lake Charles Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board.

         DISCUSSION OF THE RECORD

         On May 19, 2015, Thomas J. Bell, Sr., Deputy Chief of Police of the Investigations Bureau (Detective Division) of the Lake Charles Police Department (LCPD), was informed by Donald D. Dixon, Chief of Police, that he was being placed on paid administrative leave pending the outcome of an administrative investigation into alleged conduct committed by him. A Corrective Action Report, dated that same day, indicated that an investigation into Bell's actions was being referred to the LCPD Administration in regards to a March 23, 2015 incident The report stated that an administrative investigation of Bell's administrative assistant, Jeanine Blaney, indicated that he had committed "infractions of law and policy" as Blaney's direct supervisor. The report further alleged that Bell allowed Blaney to attend class while on duty without any corresponding alteration to her reported work hours or her use of vacation or compensatory time for the hours she attended class at McNeese State University (McNeese); that Blaney failed to work a full eight-hour day during March 2015; that she was paid overtime on days that she attended school and failed to work a full day; and that Bell utilized Blaney for personal matters during work hours, including completing his own online course work for McNeese. The report also alleged that statements provided by Blaney and Captain Arnold Bellow, the second ranking officer in the Detective Division, directly conflicted with a statement provided by Bell.

         On June 9, 2015, Chief Dixon served Bell with a pre-disciplinary or Loudermil[1] hearing notice, which indicated that he was considering imposing severe disciplinary action, up to termination, on Bell based on the administrative investigation's findings of three sustained violations of the following LCPD Code of Conduct:

1. 4.07 False or Inaccurate Statements and Reports
An employee shall not knowingly make, or cause or allow to be made, a false or inaccurate oral or written record or report of an official nature, or intentionally withhold material matter from such report or statement. These reports include but are not limited to:
False Reporting of Work Records: No employee intentionally shall falsify work records to include: regular hours worked; overtime hours worked; compensatory time where hours claimed were not worked; or any applicable incentive pay not due the employee by action or definition.
2. 3.01 Adherence to Law
Employees shall act in accordance with the constitutions, statutes, ordinances, and the official interpretations thereof, of the United States of America, the State of Louisiana, the Parish of Calcasieu, and the City of Lake Charles
3. 3.17 Neglect of Duty
Supervisory Responsibility
A sworn employee with supervisory responsibility shall be in violation of neglect of duty whenever he fails to properly supervise subordinates, or when his actions in matters relating to discipline fail to conform within the dictates of Departmental Rules and Regulations and/or established law.
General
Each employee, because of their grade and assignment, is required to perform certain duties and assume certain responsibilities. An employee's failure to properly function in either or both of these areas constitutes a neglect of duty.
The following acts or omissions to act, although not exhaustive, are considered neglect of duty:
Failure of a supervisor to approve and/or confirm hours worked and/or hours of leave taken by their employees.

         Following a June 19, 2015 pre-disciplinary hearing, at which Bell, who was represented by counsel, presented no witnesses or evidence, Chief Dixon determined that the findings of the administrative investigation constituted sustained violations of the three Code of Conduct provisions and the provisions of La.R.S. 33:2500. Based on these findings, Chief Dixon recommended that Bell's employment be terminated effective the close of business June 24, 2015. Chief Dixon's recommendation was approved by Randy Roach, the Mayor of Lake Charles, and Bell received notification of his termination in a June 22, 2015 letter.

         On June 25, 2015, Bell filed a written request to appeal his termination by the City of Lake Charles (the City) to the Lake Charles Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board (the Board). Following public hearings held on October 7-8, 2015, and October 26-27, 2015, the Board, based on a four-to-one vote, approved a motion to find that the Appointing Authority (the Mayor) acted in good faith and for just cause in its termination of Bell. In doing so, it stated the following findings of fact: "Through written documentation, investigative findings constituted Sustained Violations of the Lake Charles Police Department Policies contained in A6, Code of Conduct."

         On November 25, 2015, Bell appealed the Board's decision upholding his termination to the Fourteenth Judicial District Court, sitting as a reviewing court pursuant to La.R.S. 33:2501(E)(1), alleging two grounds for reversal:

1. The City's termination of Deputy Chief Bell is an absolute nullity.
2. The Board's erroneous findings.

         Following an April 4, 2016 hearing, the district court took the matter under advisement. Thereafter, on April 8, 2016, it rendered oral reasons for judgment, dismissing Bell's first ground for reversal, but, after finding that the Board's findings of fact were inappropriate, it overturned the Board's decision and ordered the immediate reinstatement of Bell, with full pay and benefits retroactive to the date of his termination. A written judgment was executed by the district court to this effect on April 25, 2015. The City then perfected a suspensive appeal of the district court's judgment.

         On appeal, the City argues generally that the district court was manifestly erroneous in reversing the Board's decision because the record supports a finding that it was made in good faith and for just cause. In doing so, the City makes two arguments for why the district court's judgment should be reversed:

1. The Trial Court used the wrong standard of review in reversing the decision of the Civil Service Board.
2. The Trial Court (on Appellate Review) committed manifest error in failing to defer to the Civil Service Board's (Trier of Fact) findings of fact which were more than reasonably supported by credible evidence in the record.

         OPINION

         The procedures applicable to Bell's appeal from the Board's decision are provided by La.R.S. 33:2501(E), which provides:

(1) Any employee under classified service and any appointing I authority may appeal from any decision of the board, or from any action taken by the board under the provisions of the Part that is prejudicial to the employee or appointing authority. This appeal shall lie direct to the court of original and unlimited jurisdiction in civil suits of the parish wherein the board is domiciled.
(2) The appeal shall be taken by serving the board, within thirty days after entry of its decision, a written notice of the appeal, stating the grounds thereof and demanding that a certified transcript of the record, or written findings of facts, and all papers on file in the office of the board affecting or relating to such decision, be filed with the designated court. The board shall, within ten days, after the filing of the notice of appeal, make, certify, and file the complete transcript with the designated court, and that court shall thereupon proceed to hear and determine the appeal in a summary manner.
(3) This hearing shall be confined to the determination of whether the decision made by the board was made in good faith for cause under the provisions of this Part. No appeal to the court shall be taken except upon these grounds and except as provided in Subsection D of this Section.

         The supreme court expounded on these procedures in Shields v. City of Shreveport, 579 So.2d 961');">579 So.2d 961, 964 (La.1991), when it stated:

When conducting a hearing on an appeal of a disciplinary action, a civil service board must vacate the decision of the appointing authority if it finds "that the action was not taken in good faith for cause." La.R.S. 33:2501(C)(1). The "cause" must be one of the causes specified in La.R.S. 33:2500. A board may affirm the appointing authority's action only "if the evidence is conclusive." La.R.S. 33:2501(C)(1). The appointing authority must prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence. Linton v. Bossier City Mun. Fire & Police Board, 428 So.2d 515 (La.App.2d Cir.1983). On appeal from an adverse decision of a civil service board, the hearing shall "be confined to the determination of whether the decision made by the board was made in good faith for cause under the provisions of this Part. No appeal to the court shall be taken except upon these grounds. . . ." La.R.S. 33:2501(E)(3). Our review of a civil service board's findings of fact is limited. Those findings are entitled to the same weight as findings of fact made by a trial court and are not to be overturned in the absence of manifest error. City of Kenner v. Wool, 433 So.2d 785, 788 (LaApp. 5th Cir.1983).

         In Townsend v. City of Leesville, 14-923, p. 2 (La.App. 3 Cir. 2/4/15), 158 So.3d 263, 266, writ denied, 15-703 (La. 6/1/15), 171 So.3d 263, this court discussed the concept of "good faith" and "cause" in the context of a civil service appeal:

Good faith fails to occur when the appointing authority acts arbitrarily or capriciously or results from prejudice or political expediency. Martin v. City of St. Martinville, 321 So.2d 532 (La.App. 3 Cir.1975); writ denied, 325 So.2d 273 (La. 1976). Arbitrary or capricious behavior occurs when there is a lack of a rational basis for the action taken. Shields v. City of Shreveport, 579 So.2d 961');">579 So.2d 961 (La.1991).
"Legal cause for disciplinary action exists if the facts found by the commission disclose that the conduct of the employee impairs the efficiency of the public service." Leggett v. Nw. State Coll., 242 La. 927, 140 So.2d 5, 9 (1962). A real and substantial relationship must be maintained "between the conduct of the employee and the efficient operation of the public service; otherwise legal cause" fails to exist and "any disciplinary action by the commission is arbitrary and capricious." Id. at 10. The action taken by the appointing authority "must be set aside if it was not taken 'for cause, ' even though it may have been taken in good faith." Martin, 321 So.2d at 535.

         FIRST ARGUMENT FOR REVERSAL

         In its first argument for reversal, the City argues that the district court applied the wrong standard of review in reversing the Board's decision and then substituted its own factual findings for those of the Board in finding that it acted arbitrarily and capriciously in affirming Bell's termination.

         In Townsend, 158 So.3d at 267, this court again reviewed the burden of proof and standard of review applicable in civil service matters:

"The [a]ppointing [a]uthority has the burden of proving by a preponderance of the evidence the occurrence of the complained of activity and that the conduct complained of impaired the efficiency of the public service." Fernandez v. New Orleans Fire Dep't, 01-436, p. 4 (La.App. 4 Cir. 2/6/02), 809 So.2d 1163, 1165. A classified employee has a property right in his employment which he cannot be deprived of without legal cause and due process. Moore v. Ware, 01-3341 (La.2/25/03), 839 So.2d 940. The trial court accords deference to a civil service . . . board's factual conclusions which should not be overturned unless they are manifestly erroneous. Shields [v. City of Shreveport], 579 So.2d 961 [(La. 1991)]. Likewise, the intermediate appellate court and our review of a civil service board's factual findings are limited. Id. Those findings, which are entitled to the same weight as the trial court's factual findings, cannot be overturned in the absence of manifest error. Id.

         In its oral reasons for judgment, the district court stated the following with regards to the standard of ...


Buy This Entire Record For $7.95

Download the entire decision to receive the complete text, official citation,
docket number, dissents and concurrences, and footnotes for this case.

Learn more about what you receive with purchase of this case.