San Diego Firefighter Loses Appeal of Suspensions

A San Diego firefighter who was suspended over two incidents that occurred in 2012 and 2013, has lost his appeal to have the discipline overturned by the California Court of Appeals. Michael Meoli was involved in separate incidents February 2012 and January 2013 that each resulted in a 24-hour suspension.

Meoli appealed the penalty for each incident to the San Diego Civil Service Commission, who upheld the suspensions. He then appealed the Civil Service Commission ruling to the San Diego County Superior Court. The court upheld the Commission prompting Meoli to seek review from the Court of Appeals.

According to the ruling, the two incidents were as follows:

  • February 2012 Fire Station Incident
  • On February 3, 2012, at the request of the Department’s professional standards unit, the chief from a battalion other than the one to which Meoli was assigned served Meoli with a notification of fact-finding.
  • Meoli’s in-station captain joined the battalion chief as the chief provided Meoli with a copy of the notification and read it to him.
  • After Meoli signed the notification, he and the battalion chief exchanged a few words before the chief told Meoli that the conversation was over.
  • Meoli continued the communication, including physical contact with the battalion chief, and concluded with a statement that the chief “took . . . as a verbal threat.”
  • Because he “felt . . . verbally and physically threatened,” the visiting battalion chief called in the shift supervisor on duty and Meoli’s battalion chief.
  • When they arrived, the visiting battalion chief explained to the two others what had happened, and the shift commander made the decision to-and did-suspend Meoli immediately based on the City’s zero tolerance policy regarding threats.
  • By notice of suspension read and received by Meoli on May 28, 2013, the City suspended Meoli for 24 hours based on his action on February 3, 2012.
  • The January 2013 Dog Park Incident
  • In January 2013, Cheryl M., a retired City police officer, was walking her dogs at Canyonside Community Park in the Rancho Peñasquitos area of San Diego.
  • She had been at the park for approximately a half hour when she first saw Meoli with his dog off-leash-i.e., a dog she described as a “very large pit bull” weighing approximately 150 pounds. Cheryl was “on alert” because Meoli was “trying to call [his dog] and get control of it, and it wasn’t paying attention.”
  • At that time, Cheryl “ventured way out and looped around . . . to avoid having any contact with [Meoli’s] dog” as she attempted to return to her car.
  • As Cheryl continued on her alternate route, Meoli’s dog “rushed” her, crossing a ball field “at a full run through the open gate” and coming within inches of her.
  • The dog remained in front of Cheryl “for maybe a good 30 seconds” before Meoli caught up to them.
  • His dog’s hackles were raised-which she understood to mean the dog was ” ‘angry,’ ” ” ‘nervous’ ” and ” ‘insecure.’ ”
  • Cheryl was “frozen,” asking Meoli multiple times to leash his dog; but he stayed approximately five yards away, pacing in a semi-circle and telling her to ” ‘Just relax. Calm down.’ ”
  • Meoli did nothing to contain his dog, which was “locked right onto” Cheryl, such that each time she made a step, the dog would move with her, not letting her pass.
  • A man driving a white pickup truck stopped next to them, saw that Cheryl was “in some sort of trouble,” and yelled to Meoli multiple times to leash his dog. Meoli did not leash his dog, instead heading in the direction of the man from the pickup truck.
  • The men argued: The man from the pickup truck told Meoli that, if he (Meoli) did not leash his dog, he (the man from the pickup truck) would call the police-to which Meoli responded, ” ‘Don’t bother. I am the police’ “; and the man from the pickup truck asked for Meoli’s name and badge number-which, Cheryl testified, a police officer must provide upon request-but Meoli did not respond.
  • As the two men argued, Cheryl left with her dogs.
  • By notice of suspension received by Meoli on December 6, 2013, the City suspended Meoli for 24 hours based on his action on January 23, 2013.

Meoli claimed the superior court failed to conclude the Commission abused its discretion in upholding his suspensions by “unreasonably interpreting the legal authorities relevant to this matter and misapprehending and misapplying the facts, resulting in objective errors of the law, which prejudiced [Meoli].” He also claimed Cheryl M. illegally obtained his identity using law enforcement contacts.

The Court of Appeals rejected Meoli’s claims and upheld the Commission and trial court rulings. Here is a copy of the decision.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
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