Legal Defense Plan Not Obliged To Defend Officer

Sammy Cuevas was hired as an officer with the Campbell, California Police Department in April 2008. In 2009, he was the subject of an internal investigation into his off-duty associations with Oscar Padilla and Joseph Aguilera, individuals believed to be gang members and drug dealers. Cuevas was suspended for 36 hours without pay and he was given a direct order by Police Chief Greg Finch to have no association with Padilla, Aguilera, or any other person involved in criminal or gang activity. Chief Finch also instructed Cuevas to report any contact with Padilla or Aguilera to command staff.

In 2010, Cuevas was the subject of a second internal investigation. That investigation revealed that Cuevas was living with Aguilera’s estranged wife, Antonia Lopez. Aguilera and Lopez had separated, but investigators believed that Aguilera had visitation rights with respect to his child, who lived with Lopez. Investigators determined that at times Aguilera’s car and Cuevas’s car were both parked at Cuevas’s residence.

The City fired Cuevas for insubordination, dishonesty, personal relationships with persons engaged in criminal activity, and other misconduct. He appealed his termination to the Campbell City Council and sought benefits for legal representation for that appeal under the terms of the Police Officers Research Association of California Legal Defense Fund (LDF). Under the Plan, participants are entitled to legal representation in civil and criminal actions, and administrative disciplinary actions, arising from acts or omissions within the scope of employment.

LDF declined to provide legal representation for Cuevas’s appeal to the City Council on the ground that he was terminated for conduct outside the scope of his employment. Cuevas challenged LDF’s decision through filing a lawsuit. Cuevas sought recovery of $43,688.35 in attorneys’ fees and costs that he paid out of pocket to pursue his appeal to the City Council.

A federal court ruled against Cuevas. The Court found that LDF’s plan “clearly confers discretionary authority upon the plan administrator – the Board of Trustees – to determine eligibility for benefits. The Board found that the gravamen of the violations that Cuevas was found to have committed was his off-duty conduct, including his contacts with certain individuals. The Board concluded that off-duty associations do not meet the definition of acts or omissions which are typical of or associated with the duties which a peace officer is hired, trained, and paid to perform.

“The Board’s decision sets forth reasonable bases for its denial of Cuevas’s claim. While some of the conduct for which Cuevas was terminated arguably falls within the scope of his employment, the Board drew a reasonable distinction between Cuevas’s job duties – some of which were imposed upon him as a disciplinary measure – and the duties which a peace officer is hired, trained, and paid to perform. The Board’s decision also offers a reasonable explanation for its conclusion that all conduct that violates Department policy cannot be conduct within the scope of employment. Even viewing the Board’s reasoning with a modest degree of skepticism, the Court cannot conclude that the Board abused its discretion in interpreting the Plan as it did or in denying Cuevas’s claim for benefits.”

Cuevas v. Peace Officers Research Association of California Legal Defense Fund, 2016 WL 2754434 (N.D. Cal. 2016).