California Battalion Chief’s Termination Overturned

A California battalion chief who was terminated for allegedly failing to report an altercation between a captain and a patient and lying to investigators about it, has been granted a reprieve by the California Court of Appeals.

Loma Linda battalion chief Steve Jones was terminated in 2014 over an incident that occurred on January 1, 2014. One of his crews was dispatched on a medical run for a man with mental health issue. While attempting to transport the man he became violent prompting Captain Scott Toppo to place his hands on the man. Captain Toppo claims at one point he punched his own hand which was on the man’s forehead, but he did not strike the man directly.

Upon returning to quarters, Captain Toppo reported what occurred to Chief Jones. Chief Jones contends he understood Captain Toppo did not actually punch the man, and as a result he did not report the matter.

During an investigation into the matter the department concluded Chief Jones lied about what occurred and failed to report the assault, leading to his termination. He filed a series of appeals as explained in the accompanying decision, culminating in the case reaching the Court of Appeals.

From the decision:

  • Jones contends that substantial evidence does not support the finding that he was dishonest during the investigation.
  • Toppo’s statements reflect he informed Jones that he struggled with the patient, that his hand was on the patient, and that he “came down on [his] hand.”
  • Jones contends the issue “comes down to credibility,” in particular, Toppo’s lack of credibility. We resolve all “questions of credibility in favor of the prevailing party.”
  • Jones contends substantial evidence does not support the finding that he violated a City policy by not reporting Toppo’s conduct because there is no evidence of a policy mandating such a report.
  • The City concedes there was no policy requiring Jones to report Toppo’s conduct.
  • Jones was charged with violating City policies.
  • The City found that charge to be true.
  • The City concedes that there is not a specific policy that Jones violated.
  • Because this is an issue of substantial evidence, we interpret the City’s concession as acceding there is no evidence reflecting Jones violated a City policy.
  • Accordingly, we conclude the finding that Jones violated a City policy is not supported by substantial evidence.

The court sent the case back to the city to:

(1) set aside the portion of its July 14, 2015, decision that upholds the termination of Jones’s employment…

(2) permit oral and/or written argument by the parties on the subject of the proper discipline to impose;

(3) determine the discipline, if any, to be imposed; and

(4) issue a new or amended decision reflecting (a) the record does not support findings that Jones violated (i) a City policy, and (ii) Health and Safety Code section 1798.200; and (b) the form of discipline, if any, selected or upheld by the City.

Here is a copy of the decision: Jones v. City of Loma Linda_ 2019 Cal. App.

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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