Wednesday Apr 28 2010
Rocklin ready for trial in ex-officer’s civil rights lawsuit
By: Jon Brines, Placer Herald Correspondent
Former police sergeant claims wrongful termination
Rocklin is ready for trial in a federal civil rights lawsuit brought by former Rocklin police Sgt. Rick Eaton, according to the lead attorney defending the city. Eaton filed a lawsuit against the city of Rocklin, City Manager Carlos Urrutia and Police Chief Mark Siemens for wrongful termination. “We’ll go to trial and win,” defense attorney Bruce Scheidt of Kronick, Moskovitz, Tiedemann and Girard said. Eaton filed suit for unspecified damages after he was terminated from the Rocklin Police Department in 2004. He was terminated after a series of questionable incidents outlined in court documents including insubordination and a violation of the city’s anti-harassment policy. Right now both sides are waiting for a ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. The city filed an appeal, which stated the city manager and police chief have immunity because the decision was part of their job. “The ninth circuit has to decide if they have immunity,” Scheidt said. “Public officials, if they make reasonable decisions, get immunity from prosecution.” Eaton’s lawyers filed a motion to dismiss the city’s appeal since it hasn’t gone to trial yet. They want their day in court. The city alleges Eaton violated the city’s anti-harassment policy during a discussion of breast implants with a female officer. “They were listening to a sexually provocative radio station while he is in uniform and supervising her after the hour of midnight,” Scheidt said. “He asked her to see her breasts.” The plaintiff’s lawyer James Ashworth contends the female officer chose to discuss her breast augmentation surgery with him. “It was serious enough for him to apologize to her. He admitted that,” Scheidt said. “He never accepted discipline for this.” Instead of firing Eaton, Siemens put him on a 40-hour suspension. “Siemens was practicing progressive discipline,” Scheidt said. 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 looked at the termination back in 2006 and said there was plenty to fire him over. “One of the issues we’re going to bring up in our appeal; if the city could lawfully and reasonably rely on Riker’s arbitration decision and could terminate him based on that,” Scheidt said. “If that’s so, there shouldn’t be any lawsuit.” The arbitration decision stated Eaton should have been fired because he was disrupting the good order of the police department. Ashworth said Eaton’s role was more of a whistleblower to problems in the force. “Our client, Mr. Eaton, raised issues involving the chief,” Ashworth said. Scheidt points to an event shortly after Eaton filed suit in State court but before he was terminated, when he dug up dirt on a Rocklin police lieutenant who was conducting an internal affairs investigation against another officer who was allegedly caught driving under the influence. “Eaton admitted he was offering (the officer) assistance in fighting the department’s discipline,” Scheidt said. “It was not Eaton’s place to volunteer this information or use it to influence the outcome of the investigation.” The city’s case includes numerous incidents where Eaton undermined the police chief and leadership to subordinate officers. “He was in a war against the department,” Scheidt said. “Eaton feels he can violate the rules if he is doing the right thing on matters of public concern.” The arbitrator said in a paramilitary organization like the Rocklin Police Department, Eaton’s type of insubordination was especially troublesome. “You have to rely on authority. They have guns, hurt people and kill people. You can’t disparage the chief to subordinates,” Scheidt said. “You complain up the chain of command or publicly but you don’t complain to the very people you are relying on for peace.” Scheidt wants the public to know that even though Eaton has a right to file the lawsuits, he’s lost five of the six legal challenges he’s raised over the last six years. “When you terminate someone, they have a right to grieve it,” Scheidt said. “But at some point you have to accept finality here. Eaton is the most litigate employee I’ve ever seen.” Eaton’s sixth and last outstanding claim references equal protection under the law, which the complaint alleges the city violated by treating each grievance by employees differently, which violated Eaton’s civil rights. “The concept behind equal protection is that you have to treat all individuals equally,” Ashworth said. The complaint alleges Eaton was one of many employees seen by management as non-team players who were terminated or forced to resign after grievances against the city. “There were no more complaints out of the Rocklin Police Department after they canned everybody,” Ashworth said. Ashworth has testimony from a number of former Rocklin officers seeking to support Eaton’s case against the city. Scheidt said none of their claims will hold up in court either. “Eaton has a lot of malcontents, under-performing people who have problems with their own performance and this is get-even time,” Scheidt said. Scheidt said he isn’t worried about what they have to say because all the evidence supports that no laws were broken. Scheidt said he is confident the original arbitration decision will ultimately hold up in court. “When you read his side of this, you get a distorted picture,” Scheidt said. “The court may just say we think a jury should ultimately decide the one remaining issue here.” It could take up to 18 months to rule.