HAMMOND — The Hammond civil service board recused itself Friday from hearing Police Chief Roddy Devall’s appeal of his firing over allegations that he broke state law and department policy in the handling of an officer’s arrest last year.
The board will ask that an administrative law judge be appointed to hear the appeal — a new procedure Devall’s attorney said is illegal and deprives the chief of his due process rights. He plans to fight the new procedure, even as it moves forward.
The board’s attorney said the police chief is seeking special treatment not afforded other civil service employees.
Mayor Pete Panepinto fired Devall on Monday, telling him in a letter that the chief had willfully violated state law by ordering the department’s spokesman to release the home address and photograph of Officer Jennifer Payne when she was arrested in April 2014 on allegations of prescription drug fraud.
Although jail booking information is public record under state law, the Louisiana Police Officers’ Bill of Rights prohibits anyone from releasing to the news media an officer’s home address, photograph or other confidential information without the officer’s written consent.
Payne filed a complaint with the Hammond Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board, which investigated the matter and turned over its findings to the city’s administration for a predisciplinary hearing.
Director of Administration Lacy Landrum recommended Devall be suspended, according to the chief’s attorney, Ron Macaluso. The mayor fired him instead.
Devall immediately appealed his termination to the civil service board, but because of the board’s involvement in the initial investigation, it recused itself from hearing the case.
Anticipating that might happen, the board had amended its rules in March to state that any time the entire board recuses itself, it would request the Louisiana Division of Administrative Law appoint a judge to hear the appeal. A record from the hearing would then be sent to a state district judge to decide if the city administration acted in good faith and for good cause in firing Devall.
The board’s rule change has received tacit approval from Judge Jeff Johnson, of the 21st Judicial District, who presides over a related lawsuit Devall filed against the city. In July, Johnson ordered the civil service board to take no further action in Devall’s disciplinary process except to follow its new rule.
However, Macaluso said the new rule violates Devall’s due process rights by depriving him of an opportunity to have the board — which includes two civil service employees — hear his appeal.
Macaluso also took issue with the board’s investigation of Payne’s complaint, saying the board members never should have actively participated in the depositions or questioned witnesses.
“If the board wanted to appoint a magistrate or administrative law judge, they should’ve done it in the beginning and have the magistrate or ALJ conduct the investigation, take in the evidence and then make a recommendation to the board,” Macaluso said. “Instead, they did it backwards and then enacted this new rule to try to fix it remedially.”
Board attorney Henry Olinde said the board did exactly what it should have done, when it should have done it.
The civil service board serves two roles under state law: investigating complaints and acting as a neutral tribunal for hearings, Olinde said.
“In its role as investigator, it’s not required to be neutral, although this board was,” Olinde said. “The neutrality requirement is not triggered until they switch hats, so to speak, and become a tribunal to hear an appeal.”
Olinde said state civil service laws are vague when it comes to the appeals process.
State law does make clear that if one or more board members’ recusal renders the board unable to decide an appeal, then the decision of the appointing authority — in this case, the mayor — is affirmed. Any appeal after that would go to district court. That is true for all civil service employees’ cases, Olinde said.
But state law is silent as to what should happen if the entire board recuses itself and an appeal hearing cannot even be held. That is the gap the board’s amended rule attempts to fill, Olinde said.
“Every employee in (Devall’s) situation whose appeal cannot be heard because of the board’s recusal effectively has to go to the district court,” Olinde said. “He is not being treated any differently. What he is asking is to receive special treatment, rather than equal treatment.”
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