Employer Has Burden Of Proving Disciplinary Notice To Employee

Stephan Jones was a firefighter with the Pineville, Louisiana Fire Department. On July 23, 2003, Jones, who was operating a fire rig, was involved in a minor accident with a United Stated Postal Service truck. Jones was driving without a valid driver’s license in his possession when the accident occurred.

Before leaving the accident scene, pursuant to Pineville’s substance abuse policy, Jones was ordered by Chief Doug Nugent to report to the Rapides Regional Medical Center’s Industrial Medicine Clinic to provide a urine sample for a drug screen. Captain Eddie Laborde was instructed to transport Jones to the facility.

Upon leaving the accident scene, Jones requested that Captain Laborde bring him to the fire station so that he could retrieve his driver’s license. While at the station, Jones collected items from the saddlebag of his motorcycle, had a glass of water, and used the restroom. Captain Laborde then took Jones to the facility to provide the urine sample.

At the facility, Jones was given a urine cup and was instructed to go into the restroom by the attending nurse, Dianne McClellan. When Jones returned with the sample, Nurse McClellan tested it to determine whether the sample was within the temperature range necessary to be susceptible to a valid drug screen. According to McClellan, the temperature strip indicated that the sample’s temperature was too high to be tested, and she informed Jones that he would need to submit another sample. At this point, Jones apparently became irate with Nurse McClellan and refused to submit another sample. Jones then left the facility to await Captain Laborde’s return.

When Captain Laborde arrived, Jones got into the vehicle and informed Captain Laborde that the urine sample was determined to be invalid. Captain Laborde then told Jones that failure to submit a valid sample could cost him his job. Captain Laborde then returned Jones to the facility to see if Jones could submit a second sample.

Once inside, Captain Laborde called another chief, who told him to transport Jones back to administration. Jones was then told that he had the option of resigning or being placed on suspension without pay. Jones refused to resign and was sent home on immediate suspension.

The Department terminated Jones for insubordination for failing to provide the urine sample. When the Civil Service Board upheld the termination, Jones appealed through the court system.

The Louisiana Court of Appeals reversed Jones’ termination. The Court focused on a Louisiana statute that provides: “In every case of corrective or disciplinary action taken against a regular employee of the classified service, the appointing authority shall furnish the employee and the board a statement in writing of the action and the complete reasons therefor.” There was no dispute that the Mayor of Pineville (the “appointing authority” under Louisiana law) never sent Jones a written statement setting forth the reasons for his termination.

The City asked the Court to remand the case back to the Civil Service Board to allow it to present evidence that it had sent the requisite notice to Jones. The Court refused to do so, holding: “It is Pineville, through its Mayor, that has the burden to prove to the Civil Service Board that it has complied with its affirmative statutory mandate to give notice. While Pineville may or may not have actually provided Jones with a written statement notifying him of his termination and reasons for such, the time for submission of such evidence has passed. The clear language of the statute was readily available to Pineville, and to allow it to get a second chance to comply with the statute would be an injustice to Jones.

“Louisiana’s revised statutes provide an extensive, detailed procedure to be followed in the discipline of civil service employees. The law is clear that it is incumbent upon the appointing authority to initiate corrective or disciplinary action. This action is initialized by furnishing notice to the board and the employee a statement in writing of contemplated action and reasons therefor. The language in this section is clearly mandatory, i.e., ‘the appointing authority shall furnish the employee…a statement in writing of the action and the complete reasons therefor.’

“The written notice requirement is both fundamental and sacrosanct. The written statement contains the actual disciplinary action taken by the appointing authority (in this case the employee’s termination), gives notice to the employee of the action and his right to initiate further proceedings, and gives the board and employee the reasons for the action so that both can prepare for further proceedings. These reasons, and these alone, may then be considered by the board in its subsequent investigation. The employee is required to respond to the allegations, and only those allegations, included in the written statement. Until this written statement is given, the employee has not been disciplined (terminated), the board has no authority to investigate, and there is nothing for the district court to review.”

Jones v. City Of Pineville, 2010 WL 1329089 (La. App. 3 Cir. 2010).

This article appears in the July 2010 issue