Sheriff, Not County, Must Face Deputy’s Claim

     SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – A federal judge dismissed claims a Bay Area sheriff’s deputy filed against Contra Costa County for allegedly denying him a name-clearing hearing after he was fired for reporting a dirty sting and cover-up.
     Former Reserve Deputy William Howard claims the Contra Costa Sheriff’s Department ostracized, demoted and fired him for telling superiors that Deputy Stephen Tanabe had coordinated a sting with a private investigator to set up a winery owner for a DUI arrest.
     Howard claims Tanabe then asked him to hide a package in his attic that might be relevant to an investigation into a DUI sting of Mitchell Katz, a winery owner.
     Katz claimed in a 2011 lawsuit that private investigator Chris Butler had set up a sting against him, and that employee of Butler invited him to a wine bar in Danville on the pretext that he wanted to make a reality TV show about Katz’s winemaking business.
     The real purpose of the meeting was to lure Katz into getting drunk so Tanabe could arrest him for DUI, a charge his estranged wife could use against him in custody proceedings, according to the 2011 lawsuit. Katz agreed to dismiss without prejudice three of the 13 causes of action in his lawsuit.
     Howard claims he was named in a San Francisco Chronicle news article on March 9, 2011 as the person who reported Tanabe to Contra Costa County regarding the Katz arrest. In his lawsuit, Howard said he was removed from work for the first time in 18 years, subjected to hostile treatment by a fellow deputy, and not scheduled to work for an entire week in May 2011.
     He was also named in a San Francisco Chronicle article and other media reports as the sheriff’s deputy who reported Tanabe. He claims the county aided, encouraged and solicited those media reports in order to defame him and impugn his reputation. He says the county also sent a letter to residents in the Contra Costa town of Danville that referred to Howard as the second deputy involved in the DUI arrest of Katz.
     Howard was fired on August 14, 2012 and told there would be no hearing regarding his termination as the decision was irreversible.
     In a ruling Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Nathanael Cousins said the letter “could be read as implicating Howard in the improprieties that were reported in the media,” but, “the inference that defendants publicized a stigmatizing charge, however, is not sufficient by itself to state a due process claim. The court agrees with defendants that Howard has failed to allege that the stigmatizing charge was made in connection with his employment termination.”
     Cousins also dismissed Howard’s claims against the county for negligent hiring, citing a previous order that found Howard could not support his proposition that the alleged harassment and retaliation he suffered did not exceed the risk inherent in his employment relationship with the Sheriff’s Department. “Despite the opportunity to amend, the complaint continues to suffer from this defect,” Cousins wrote.
     Cousins allowed Howard to proceed with his claims against Sheriff David O. Livingston and assistant sheriff Sean Fawell, finding his complaint has enough facts to link Livingston and Fawell to unconstitutional conduct. In doing so, Cousins pointed to statements Livingston made that Howard, when he complained that he was being harassed, should consider himself “lucky” he hadn’t been dismissed.

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