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Former police officer lawsuit one step closer to trial

Urrutia, Siemens lose immunity in civil lawsuit
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
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Former Rocklin Police Sgt. Rick Eaton's federal civil rights lawsuit against the city has moved one step closer to a jury trial. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on May 4 that former Rocklin City Manager Carlos Urrutia and former Police Chief Mark Siemens could not seek immunity from prosecution in the suit, even though when they fired Eaton in 2004 it was part of their job. Eaton alleges Uruttia and Siemens violated his civil rights under equal protection because they treated him differently than other employees who were considered "team players." The ruling reads in part: "Siemens and Urrutia argue that the law does not clearly establish that their alleged misconduct violates equal protection. But reasonable officials would surely know that they are acting unlawfully by subjecting employees perceived as being uncooperative with department misconduct to discriminatory discipline and termination." Eaton said he was pleased with the court's decision to allow the case to go to trial. "The ruling means Siemens and Urrutia can be held personally liable for punitive damages in the event a jury determined that course of action was warranted," Eaton said in a statement. The former police sergeant filed suit for unspecified damages after he was terminated from the Rocklin Police Department. The firing apparently followed a series of questionable incidents outlined in court documents, including insubordination and a violation of the city’s anti-harassment policy. Attorney Bruce Schiedt, who represents Siemens, Urrutia and the city, said in a statement that the Ninth Circuit expressly did not offer an opinion on the credibility of Eaton's claims. "It is remarkable to me that Rick Eaton and his lawyers would declare victory," Schiedt said. "The appeal permitted Mr. Eaton's lawsuit to survive another day, but he did not win anything. Mr. Eaton simply avoided a final defeat." The city alleges Eaton violated the city’s anti-harassment policy during a discussion of breast implants with a female officer. After a series of instances of insubordination, the city manager was forced to fire Eaton, according to Scheidt. The city’s case relies on the findings of arbitrator William Riker, who reviewed the termination in 2006, and concluded Eaton should have been fired because he was disrupting the good order of the police department. Eaton contends he was fired because he was a whistle-blower reporting alleged illegal activity, such as the 2003 pizza for tickets program where the Rocklin Police Department rewarded officers with meals for writing the most red light tickets. The suit claims the program violated California's vehicle code and only stopped when Eaton complained about it. "I really don't view it as justice," Eaton said of the ruling. "The courts have spoken, the lawsuit is going forward and seeks what, if any, accountability the defendants may or may not be culpable for. We can now look forward to presenting our case in its entirety to a jury." Currently, the city also has the opportunity to request a rare and discretionary full Ninth Circuit en banc review. That's where the appealing party asks the entire Court of Appeals to second-guess the decision of the three-judge panel in this ruling. Schiedt did not comment on whether the city will ask for the review. Otherwise, the trial is expected to start late this year or early 2012. Urrutia retired from the city Dec 2010 and Siemens retired from his post in March.