Whistleblowing Deputy Loses Lawsuit

Frank Vernagallo was a full-time deputy sheriff for Harris County, Texas. Vernagallo was a much-decorated deputy who nonetheless had a very controversial tenure. Vernagallo not only made numerous allegations of illegal conduct on the part of other employees, he also was the subject of complaints by citizens and fellow officers related to his temper and treatment of the public.

Vernagallo’s troubled behavior seemed to peak in late 1997, when he yelled at, cursed, and threatened a fellow law enforcement officer at a political party convention. Shortly after, Vernagallo’s supervisor was called to the scene when Vernagallo had a hostile confrontation with a Houston police officer who had stopped Vernagallo while he was driving. The Houston officer stated that Vernagallo appeared to be angry enough to kill him.

Because of these incidents and several of the same general nature, the County required Vernagallo to participate in an employee assistance program (EAP). During a meeting in which mid-level supervisors described the EAP requirements to Vernagallo, he was asked if he had written an anonymous letter that was sent to Mothers Against Drunk Drivers describing the actions of other officers who did not arrest a man who may have been driving while under the influence of alcohol. Vernagallo denied authorship during the meeting but later claimed he had written the letter.

Days after the EAP meeting, Vernagallo went to the Harris County District Attorney’s office to report three allegations of illegal conduct. First, Vernagallo reported that a private citizen made $100 cash gifts to some of the officers, including Vernagallo, in December 1999. Vernagallo also reported that some officers wrongfully had removed property from an abandoned subdivision. Finally, Vernagallo told those present at a meeting in the DA’s office that he had authored the anonymous letter about drunk driving.

Three months later, a fellow deputy and a citizen both filed formal internal affairs complaints about Vernagallo’s behavior. The deputy’s complaint alleged that he had witnessed Vernagallo yelling and cursing at two citizens, that he had assaulted another citizen, and threatened a fourth with jail, suggesting that Child Protective Services would take away her child.

Following an internal affairs investigation, Chief Constable Gary Freeman, the Chief Executive Officer in the Department, fired Vernagallo. Vernagallo responded by filing a whistleblower’s lawsuit. When a jury awarded Vernagallo $3,000 in lost wages, the County appealed.

A Texas Court of Appeals dismissed Vernagallo’s lawsuit. The problem, the Court thought, was that Vernagallo was unable to show that Freeman had any knowledge that Vernagallo made the complaints to the District Attorney’s office. Freeman denied having any knowledge of the complaint at the time he fired Vernagallo, and Vernagallo was unable to point to any concrete evidence that Freeman had been told of the complaints.

Rather, Vernagallo relied on circumstantial evidence – in his case that Freeman’s asserted reason for the termination was false. The Court, though, was convinced that “the multitude of similar complaints about Vernagallo’s behavior” meant that “Freeman’s stated reason for firing Vernagallo is not implausible. The record does not contain any circumstantial evidence to show that the County fired Vernagallo because of his report to the District Attorney’s office. Nor does the record contain any direct evidence to prove that fact. We conclude the evidence is legally sufficient to support the jury’s verdict.”

Harris County v. Vernagallo, 2005 WL 1771128 (Tex.App. 2005).

This article appears in the September 2005 issue