LOS ANGELES (CN) – A California judge on Friday tentatively overturned Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s decision to reinstate an officer fired for domestic violence, but a final ruling is expected next week.
Before taking office, Villanueva began reinstating officer Caren Mandoyan to the force, a move that came years after a county appeals board upheld a decision to fire Mandoyan after his former partner – also a police officer – accused him in 2016 of stalking and physical abuse.
The decision to rehire Mandoyan – who was never criminally charged – triggered a March 4 lawsuit against Villanueva by the LA County Board of Supervisors, who argued the sheriff acted outside the scope of his authority.
Days later, Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff declined the county’s request for an order forcing Mandoyan to return his badge and gun but ordered additional briefing on the scope of Villanueva’s authority in personnel matters.
In papers opposing the county’s preliminary injunction request, Villanueva’s attorneys said LA County Counsel Mary Wickham’s office had advised the department had authority to review disciplinary cases and that Villanueva had discretion to rehire officers.
At a hearing Friday, Villanueva’s attorney Steven Madison told Beckloff that the advice from Wickham’s office was instrumental in Mandoyan’s rehiring process and that the county cannot seek revision of its authority through the courts.
“These are not some permit office workers across a window,” Madison said regarding legal advice from county lawyers. “These are our lawyers.”
Madison told Beckloff state and county law grant Villanueva authority to handle personnel matters, including decision on rehiring “whether we or the [county supervisors] thinks it’s wise or not.”
Beckloff said that while county supervisors may not interfere with Villanueva’s “prosecutorial and investigative duties” under state law, department rehiring is subject to Civil Service Commission rules.
Mandoyan’s attorney Greg Smith told Beckloff the officer fumbled by leaning too heavily on advice from his commanders and that he would be harmed financially from an injunction.
“He is not in that food chain,” Smith said regarding advice from Mandoyan’s commanders on personnel matters. “If the injunction is granted, he’s finished.”
Louis “Skip” Miller of Miller Barondess, an attorney for the county, told Beckloff that an order overturning Mandoyan’s rehiring would be appropriate.
“We have a sheriff who is playing games and is not playing right,” Miller said. “There is a real concern from the board. [Villanueva] has discretion to run the department but there needs to be a clear order that Mandoyan is out pending trial.”
Miller told Beckloff that Villanueva’s rehiring process, including an internal review panel, is a “sham” designed to obscure the sheriff’s actions.
“It’s there so Villanueva can do what he wants when he wants regardless of county rules,” Miller said. “It’s a fraud constructed to justify the decision he made before he’d even gotten sworn in.”
Beckloff tentatively granted the county’s injunction Friday but told the parties that a final ruling will issue early next week.
It’s unclear whether Beckloff will order Mandoyan to turn in his badge and gun or, as suggested by Madison, be placed on administrative leave pending trial.
Madison, with the firm Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan, told Beckloff that being “one sheriff down until trial” is a harm to the county’s public safety and reason to order unpaid administrative leave.
Villanueva – who was elected on a reformist platform – has argued that Mandoyan was wrongfully fired and that other systematic violations of officers’ rights targeted minority cops.
Dozens of community and civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union held a rally at the courthouse Friday protesting Villanueva’s rehiring of fired officers and his stance on officer gangs in the department.
Lisa Vargas, whose son Anthony Vargas was shot and killed by sheriff’s deputies in 2017, told Courthouse News she was upset Beckloff will weigh potential harm to Mandoyan but won’t mention harm residents have experienced from officer gangs and police shootings.
Citing a Tuesday resolution passed by the LA County Democratic Party reprimanding Villanueva for reinstating officers, Vargas said the sheriff’s supporters are seeing his true colors.
“I believe Villanueva is not transparent whatsoever,” Vargas said. “The Democratic Party is right, they got conned into voting for him, believing there would be change in the system.”
Villanueva’s spokesperson did not immediately respond to a request for comment.