EDH fire captains fight disciplinary actions, counter with lawsuit
Two El Dorado Fire captains placed on paid administrative leave for alleged, undisclosed actions against a pregnant firefighter await the outcome of arbitration regarding the fire district’s disciplinary actions, and a federal lawsuit the men filed last year.
Dave Merino and Steve Maranville, pulled off duty 22 months ago, claim the El Dorado Hills Fire Department violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act, the False Claims Act and their First Amendment right to free speech. The lawsuit, filed in the Eastern California District Court against the El Dorado Hills Fire District and yet to be named “John Does,” requests punitive, compensatory and emotional distress damages for the two captains and their wives.
The lawsuit has been continued three times, most recently last week, pending an arbitrator’s non-binding ruling on the district’s actions. The El Dorado Hills Fire Board will have final say in the matter. Board President Greg Durante would only say that board members are trying to remain objective so they can rule fairly. District administration remained mum on the issue.
At the advice of their lawyer, Merino and Maranville wouldn’t be interviewed for this story.
Fire Department officials placed the men on leave for allegedly violating the district’s Non-Harassment Policy. Former union president Merino faces demotion from captain to firefighter. Maranville, whose service with the department dates back to 1985, faced termination before taking the district’s retirement incentive. Maranville left with accrued sick and vacation time, and an extra two years PERS service credit paid by the district, but he remains an active plaintiff in the lawsuit.
The delay leaves the taxpayers on the hook for Merino’s salary: up to $117,000 per year for captains with seniority, before bonuses and benefits, according to the 2006 union contract.
The lawsuit claims that plaintiffs Merino and Maranville are the victims of a tainted departmental investigation, and that the discipline is actually retaliation for their involvement in several incidents that portray district administration, especially recently retired Chief Brian Veerkamp, in a negative light.
Veerkamp is not currently a named defendant in the lawsuit, but admits he’s a strong candidate to become “John Doe No. 1” on the yet-to-be-named codefendant list. He nonetheless agreed to address the lawsuit’s accusations on the record.
“The public needs to understand that there are two sides to this,” he said. “Anyone can file a lawsuit, say what they want, and that becomes public. The rules of due process move so slow that we can’t defend ourselves until way after the fact.”
Veerkamp explained that the multi-year disciplinary process began with a female firefighter’s workplace harassment complaint. “Women are a protected class in the fire service,” he said. “Our policy requires an investigation. We had no experts in this area, so our attorney recommended that we get an independent investigator.
“If you don’t take a complaint like this seriously that person can make a pending (legal) claim (against the district),” said Veerkamp, who confirmed, “That person has.”
District officials would not confirm the existance of a second lawsuit pending the outcome of the Merino-Maranville discipline.
Veerkamp explained that the captains had to be placed on leave early in the process to alleviate a potentially hostile work environment.
Merino and Maranville’s lawsuit calls the district’s disciplinary action “unprecedented” and out of proportion to the offense, then attempts to prove the point, putting the action in historic perspective by airing past district disciplinary dirty laundry.
Prior disciplinable offenses cited include hostile work environment claims, gender discrimination, retaliation, reckless driving with a patient, license suspension from DUIs, endangerment of a patient and rigging a promotion test, according to the lawsuit. All were handled internally, it states, and none ever led to the termination of a district employee who wasn’t already on probation.
The lawsuit traces the bad blood between the two captains and Veerkamp back to 2005, when Maranville filed a complaint against the district for failing to include overtime in the calculation of firefighter bonuses.
El Dorado Hills firefighters earn percentage-based bonuses for fire and safety certifications and also general education. The 2006 union contract includes a 3 percent, stackable, recurring bonus for any two-year college degree in any field. Bachelor’s and master’s degrees tack on another 5 percent each.
Including overtime in the base calculation substantially raises bonus amounts. The lawsuit accuses Veerkamp, the deputy chief at the time, of being unresponsive on the complaint, which was eventually settled in Maranville’s favor.
“He questioned how we were handling the calculation, and he was right,” said Veerkamp. “We backpayed it and payed it correctly from then on.”
The lawsuit also alleges, and Veerkamp denies, intimidation to support the incumbent fire board members over a union-endorsed slate in the 2006 Fire Board election.
Heavy handed tactics continued when Veerkamp became chief, according to the lawsuit, which claims Veerkamp understated district finances in 2009 in an attempt to block staffing increases which Merino, serving as union president, fought for and won in the 2006 firefighters union contract.
Veerkamp’s version of the story includes a district budget that erroneously included $400,000 for three extra engineers. “We recognized it and froze that money,” explained Veerkamp. “We didn’t want to pay it for overtime.”
In the lawsuitMerino states he was subsequently instructed by Battalion Chief Dwight Piper to route his budget concerns through the chief rather than take them directly to board members, and that any dissention from the administration would be seen as insubordination.
Veerkamp would only say his officers were instructed to encourage their subordinates to go through the chain of command. “We had to comply with due process rules, but they go directly to the board, who will be the ultimate judge of this,” he said. “And that’s still going on.”
The lawsuit claims Merino was present in July 2007 when Veerkamp made an anti homosexual statement to a group of firefighters, and the chief subsequently made a similar slur in front of a Fire Board director.
Veerkamp confirmed that the matter was investigated. “There was no finding of fault,” he said. “But none of this came up until they were put on administrative leave.”
In 2008 Maranville received “the worst evaluation ever given to a captain at this department,” according to the lawsuit, and filed a retaliation complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
The lawsuit states an internal investigation found the evaluation to be full of “fabrications,” and that Veerkamp personally rewrote it, an unprecedented action, in return for Maranville dropping the complaint. “It’s all personnel stuff, so I can’t say much,” said Veerkamp. “I mediated … took the other evaluators’ concerns … gave Steve the benefit of a doubt … and raised his evaluation to something that he accepted. I made peace.”
According to the lawsuit, the incident that precipitated the disciplinary action occurred during a structure fire in April 2009, when a female firefighter left her partner to sit down and rest.
Several firefighters complained that her action put them at risk, according to the lawsuit. Two days later she asked to be put on light duty because she was four-months pregnant, further frustrating her coworkers, who complained that she should have spoken up sooner. The lawsuit notes that a similar situation had occurred previously, and Merino and Maranville began discussing policy options to prevent it in the future.
When the female firefighter learned of their discussions, the lawsuit alleges she immediately filed a hostile work environment complaint which was “light on specifics,” and didn’t mention Merino or Maranville by name but nonetheless became a cornerstone of the disciplinary action against them.
Veerkamp’s responses were muted by confidentiality requirements. “The policies were all in place and were adhered to,” he said. “Why were the two of them involved? They aren’t administrators. The bottom line is she complained … and there was a great deal of (confidential) testimony around that issue.”
That testimony led to the August 2009 investigation report concluding that Merino and Maranville had violated the district’s Non-Harassment policy.
The lawsuit claims interview transcriptions from the investigation don’t support the final report, and that the investigator tainted the process by discussing an unrelated 2007 discrimination grievance.
The subjects of public sector disciplinary actions have the right to air their case at a “Skelly hearing,” overseen by a “Skelly officer,” who rules on the validity of the case. Veerkamp served as the Skelly officer at the Merino and Maranville hearing. The lawsuit states, “He upheld his own employment sanction … an obvious conflict of interest.”
“Their counsel didn’t object to my role during the hearing,” said Veerkamp. “An outside investigator and outside counsel recommended that I be the Skelly officer, and I took their advice.”
Since then, U.S. District Court Judge Lawrence K. Karlton has granted the district a series of continuances as the arbitration has dragged on. The next deadline is April 15.
The arbitrator recently notified district officials that the ruling has been delayed due to illness. Interim Chief Jim O’Camb would only say that he has no idea when he’ll see a ruling.