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Lewis v. Department of Human Services

Court of Appeals of Louisiana, Fourth Circuit

March 21, 2018





          Court composed of Judge Terri F. Love, Judge Joy Cossich Lobrano, Judge Dennis R. Bagneris, Pro Tempore

          Joy Cossich Lobrano Judge

         In this civil service case, plaintiff/appellant, Valencia Lewis ("Lewis"), appeals the decision of the Civil Service Commission ("CSC"), upholding the suspension and termination of Lewis' employment. Lewis held the position of Office Assistant I for the Youth Study Center ("YSC"), a secure, pre-trial detention facility for youths accused of delinquent offenses in Orleans Parish, under the direction of the defendant/appellee, Department of Human Services ("DHS" or the "appointing authority"). DHS placed Lewis on emergency suspension, and subsequently terminated Lewis' employment, for violating internal employee rules of conduct prohibiting threatening other employees, after Lewis made comments regarding her desire to "hit" her supervisor, Assistant Superintendent Stephanie Mills ("Mills"). For the reasons that follow, we affirm the decision of the CSC.

         The facts leading up to Lewis' discipline are as follows. On the morning of September 1, 2015, Lewis met with Assistant Superintendent Leroy Crawford ("Crawford"), to inform him she was feeling ill and wanted to leave work to seek medical care. Lewis also expressed to Crawford various frustrations with her work assignments and Lewis' feelings that Mills treated her with disrespect. Lewis stated that she would "get so mad" with Mills that she "want[ed] to hit her in the face." Crawford brought Lewis to the office of Superintendent Glenn Holt ("Holt"), where Crawford informed Holt of Lewis' statements.

         On the same date, September 1, 2015, Holt sent Lewis a disciplinary letter on behalf of DHS, notifying Lewis that she had been placed on emergency suspension effective September 2, 2015. The letter stated that the appointing authority had determined that Lewis' comments directed toward Mills were in violation of YSC internal rules relative to (a) treating coworkers professionally and with respect; and (b) prohibiting violent acts or threatening other employees. Following a pre-termination hearing on September 21, 2015, Lewis was terminated on September 24, 2015 for violation of the rule prohibiting threatening other employees.

          Lewis appealed her suspension and termination to the CSC. Lewis' CSC appeal proceeded to hearing on March 17, 2016. On January 23, 2017, the hearing examiner issued his report in which he concluded that the appointing authority met its burden of proof and established by a preponderance of the evidence that Lewis was disciplined for cause, that Lewis' conduct impaired the public service, and that the discipline imposed was commensurate with the offense. On March 27, 2017, the CSC denied Lewis' appeal, upholding her suspension and termination. This appeal followed.

         The CSC "has authority to 'hear and decide' disciplinary cases, which includes the authority to modify (reduce) as well as to reverse or affirm a penalty." Pope v. New Orleans Police Dep't, 2004-1888, p. 5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 4/20/05), 903 So.2d 1, 4 (quoting La. Const. art. X, §12). "The appointing authority is charged with the operation of its department, and it is within its discretion to discipline an employee for sufficient cause." Gast v. Dep't of Police, 2013-0781, p. 3 (La.App. 4 Cir. 3/13/14), 137 So.3d 731, 733. "The CSC is not charged with such discipline." Id. "[T]he authority to reduce a penalty can only be exercised if there is insufficient cause for imposing the greater penalty." Pope, 2004-1888 at p. 5, 903 So.2d at 4.

         "The appointing authority has the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence that the complained of activity or dereliction occurred, and that such dereliction bore a real and substantial relationship to the efficient operation of the appointing authority." Cure v. Dep't of Police, 2007-0166, p. 2 (La.App. 4 Cir. 8/1/07), 964 So.2d 1093, 1094 (citing Marziale v. Dep't of Police, 2006-0459, p. 10 (La.App. 4 Cir. 11/8/06), 944 So.2d 760, 767). "The protection of civil service employees is only against firing (or other discipline) without cause." Cornelius v. Dep't of Police, 2007-1257, 2007-1258, p. 7 (La.App. 4 Cir. 3/19/08), 981 So.2d 720, 724 (quoting Fihlman v. New Orleans Police Dep't, 2000-2360, p. 5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 10/31/01), 797 So.2d 783, 787).

         "In determining whether an appointing authority properly imposed disciplinary action against a classified employee, the reviewing court must consider whether the punishment is commensurate with the offense." Gast, 2013-0781 at p. 4, 137 So.3d at 734 (citing Staehle v. Dep't of Police, 98-0216, p. 5 (La.App. 4 Cir. 11/18/98), 723 So.2d 1031, 1034). "The evidence in the record must establish a rational basis for the imposed discipline." Id. (citations omitted).

         This Court applies the following standard of review to Civil Service Commission cases:

First, the review by appellate courts of the factual findings in a civil service case is governed by the manifest error or clearly erroneous standard. Second, when the Commission's decision involves jurisdiction, procedure, and interpretation of laws or regulations, judicial review is not limited to the arbitrary, capricious, or abuse of discretion standard. Instead, on legal issues, appellate courts give no special weight to the findings of the trial court, but exercise their constitutional duty to review questions of law and render judgment on the record. A legal error occurs when a trial court applies the incorrect principles of law and such ...

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