The Louisiana Supreme Court has upheld the termination of an assistant fire chief who was accused of being untruthful as to his whereabouts one afternoon in 2016. Frederick Meiners, III was an Assistant Fire Chief with the St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 4.
Chief Meiners was fired on April 20, 2016, and his termination was upheld by the St. Tammany Parish Fire Protection District No. 4 Civil Service Board. He appealed the Board’s decision to the 22nd Judicial District Court for St. Tammany Parish who reversed the termination and remanded the case back to the Board. The fire district appealed that ruling to the Louisiana Supreme Court.
As explained in the decision:
- On February 19, 2016, Mr. Meiners agreed to retrieve a repaired ambulance unit from Hattiesburg, but informed his supervisor, provisional fire chief Kenneth Moore, that he first had to attend a speaking engagement with a ladies’ group that would last approximately thirty minutes.
- At 1:08 p.m. that day, Jennifer Glorioso, the wife of Fire Equipment Operator Glorioso, photographed Mr. Meiners sitting at a table at the La Madeleine restaurant with his wife and his lawyer.
- She later sent a text message containing this photograph to her husband.
- At 2:30 p.m., District Fire Chief Brady Anderson advised Chief Moore that Mr. Meiners was not yet back from his meeting and offered to pick up the ambulance himself.
- Chief Moore declined Mr. Anderson’s offer.
- At 2:37 p.m., Chief Moore called Mr. Meiners and inquired as to his whereabouts.
- Mr. Meiners advised Chief Moore that he was en route back to the station.
- Mr. Meiners reported to Chief Moore’s office at 3:00 p.m., at which time Chief Moore gave Mr. Meiners the address to the ambulance repair shop in Hattiesburg.
- Chief Moore also asked Mr. Meiners about his meeting with the ladies’ group.
- Mr. Meiners told Chief Moore that “they were just asking me about my career and what we did here at Fire District 4 . . . I’m not ever going to do that again.”
- At 3:07 p.m., Chief Moore received a text message from an unknown number that contained a photograph of Mr. Meiners taken at the restaurant.
- When Mr. Meiners returned, he confronted FEO Glorioso about the photograph by standing over him and demanding that FEO Glorioso tell him who had taken the photograph.
- Thereafter, on Monday, February 22, 2016, Chief Moore asked Mr. Anderson to put together a timeline of events of that day.
- Chief Moore then provided a written notice of investigation to Mr. Meiners, stating that he was “initiating an investigation into an incident involving you in a matter which occurred on February 19, 2016, specifically, conflicting details regarding a speaking engagement while on duty.”
- Ms. Green issued a written notice of interrogation to Mr. Meiners via certified mail on February 25, 2016, and issued an amended notice of interrogation to Mr. Meiners dated February 29, 2016, setting an interrogation date and time of March 8, 2016 at 9:00 a.m. Mr. Meiners received the amended notice on March 1 via email from Ms. Green.
- Unbeknownst to the District, Mr. Meiners conducted a “factory reset” of his employer-issued mobile phone at 11:58 p.m. on February 29, 2016. The factory reset permanently erased certain data, including all text messages.
- On Tuesday, March 8, 2016, Mr. Meiners attended the interrogation with his counsel, Mr. Barnett.
- Ms. Green and the PMI representatives, Mark Waniewski and Shannon Darder, were also present at the meeting.
- At the commencement of his interrogation, Mr. Meiners was provided with a copy of the amended notice of interrogation.
- During the interrogation, Mr. Meiners admitted he was at a restaurant eating and attending a meeting with his wife and attorney at the time of the photograph.
- Mr. Meiners claimed that immediately prior to going to the restaurant, he met with a local ladies group at Pinkberry Yogurt, which is located next to the restaurant.
- He could not remember how long the meeting at Pinkberry lasted nor could he recall the identities of any of the persons at the meeting. Mr. Meiners’s description of the meeting and involved persons was vague and general.
- On Friday, March 11, 2016, Mr. Meiners brought his cellphone to Ms. Green in a sealed envelope.
- Ms. Green sent Mr. Meiners’s telephone to a third-party expert, Data Recovery, to determine whether text messages from February 19, 2016 had been deleted.
- On April 1, 2016, Data Recovery advised Ms. Green that Mr. Meiners had conducted a factory reset on the phone on March 1, 2016.
- The district court reversed and remanded [the Board’s decision to terminate Chief Meiners].
- In written reasons for judgment, the district court found sufficient evidence existed to support the Board’s good faith and just cause in its finding relative to the alleged procedural and due process violations. In addition, the district court found sufficient evidence existed to support the Board’s good faith findings that (1) Mr. Meiners was untruthful about his Pinkberry meeting with a ladies’ group and (2) Mr. Meiners improperly used his position to intimidate FEO Glorioso.
- Nonetheless, the district court found no rational basis existed for the Board’s finding that Mr. Meiners intentionally destroyed evidence by conducting a factory reset of his District phone.
- The district court also determined the finding of untruthfulness, standing alone, does not mandate termination, where the misconduct did not result in a detrimental effect on the efficient and orderly operation of the fire department.
- Finally, the district court found insufficient evidence existed to establish a real and substantial relationship between Mr. Meiners’s improper use of his position to intimidate FEO Glorioso and the efficient operation of the District.
In reinstating the Civil Service Board’s termination decision, the Louisiana Supreme Court concluded that the district court overstepped it authority, which was limited to ensuring that the decision made was made in good faith for cause. The court concluded as a matter of law that the Board’s decision was made in good faith for cause, and reinstated the termination decision.
Here is a copy of the ruling: