The City of Woodlake could soon have a hearing before the United States Supreme Court, if the city has its way.
Woodlake Police Officer Daniel Garibay sued the City of Woodlake for wrongful termination in October of 2015, and a series of appeals by the city leaves the Supreme Court as the only place for the city to turn.
The Woodlake Police Department fired Garibay in February of 2015 for “committing acts that brought discredit to the department.”
Garibay’s lawyers, Marguerite Melo and John Sarsfield, allege that Garibay was actually fired in retaliation for his relationship with the wife of a friend of the Woodlake City Manager, Ramon Lara.
Garibay originally filed his lawsuit in Tulare County Superior Court, alleging that his federal civil rights were violated when the City of Woodlake conducted an intrusive investigation of his relationship with a woman the court documents identify as Jane Doe.
The city then further violated his rights, he claims, when he was fired from the Police Department because of this relationship.
He claims that the Woodlake Police Department infringed upon his freedom of association, privacy, and due process, all rights found in the Bill of Rights of the US Constitution.
The city has not denied it fired Garibay for having an affair, but says it broke no laws in firing him.
The city attempted to get the case dismissed, but Judge Bret Hillman of the Tulare County Superior Court allowed Garibay’s civil rights claim to go forward.
Woodlake then asked the Court of Appeals, in Fresno, to review Hillman’s ruling. After a few months, and briefings by both sides, the court did not reverse Hillman’s ruling.
The city then challenged that decision by heading to the California Supreme Court — which joined the Fresno court in allowing Hillman’s ruling to stand.
Now, Woodlake has petitioned the United States Supreme Court to review the original order.
If the court refuses to hear the case, it will return to Judge Hillman’s court room. The Supreme Court will decide next month whether it will entertain the appeal, though it declines roughly 90% of the cases submitted.
Meanwhile, the discovery phase of the case is starting in earnest and the trial in is set for December 11 in the event the Supreme Court refuses the case.
Woodlake is facing hefty legal costs by prolonging the case. The city is being represented by Farley Law Firm, located in Visalia, which has put in anywhere between 50 – 70 hours of work. According to a local lawyer, law firms usually charge a municipal rate of approximately $175 per hour, meaning that
Woodlake has already spent approximately $12,000 — before the cost of the discovery phase and the trial.
The decision whether to fight or settle was made by Woodlake’s City Council, headed by Mayor Rudy Mendoza.
Garibay was hired by the Woodlake Police Department in May, 2012. During his tenure he racked up many honors, such as being named Officer of the Year three times by the Knights of Columbus, the Police Officers Association, and by the Woodlake City Council. He received the Mothers Against Drunk Driving award twice for making the most arrests of those driving under the influence.
The Woodlake Police Department began an inquiry into Garibay’s personal life late in 2014 after Jane Doe’s husband allegedly complained to Lara. Garibay told Melo and Sarsfield that it was made clear to him during the inquiry that he was in trouble because Jane Doe’s husband is a good friend of Woodlake City Manager Lara, and not because he did anything against department policy.
After the inquiry Garibay was given a three-day suspension without pay. Garibay was hoping that the issue was over. But on November 12 he was called into Chief Mike Marquez’ office again and told that a formal Internal Affairs investigation had been initiated.
Members of the Woodlake community, such as Jane Doe’s pastor, coworkers and husband, were asked if they knew if Garibay was having an affair with Jane Doe, or if they knew there was a sexual/romantic relationship between them, according to the investigative report.
Marquez allegedly gave Garibay a written directive ordering him not to see Jane Doe and to immediately report any contact he had with her. The investigation discovered that, since the directive has been issued, Garibay had been in phone contact with Jane Doe twice and that Doe had delivered grapes to Garibay’s house.
Because it was alleged that he had disobeyed the directive, Garibay was found guilty of insubordination and misconduct and was fired. Garibay says he was never given a written directive by Marquez, and Melo and Sarsfield explained that such a directive would have been unenforceable and is highly inappropriate.
Garibay served two tours of duty: four years in Iraq, and four in Afghanistan. He was part of the US Army forces that retook Bagdad in 2005, and was also part of President Obama’s surge in 2009. He was honorably discharged with many letters of recommendation.
During his service he received 11 medals, of which the Combat Infantry Badge he is most proud.
“Not many people have those,” said Melo.
After leaving the military, Garibay decided to go into law enforcement because he wanted a job that made a difference. He enrolled in the College of the Sequoias Police Academy and graduated in the top five of his class. When he was hired by the Woodlake Police Department he soon decided that was where he wanted to retire. During his few years at the department he had other opportunities to leave but never made the jump.
Why The Supremes Would Take the Case
There are two issues that could make this an attractive case for the United States Supreme Court.
The first is that the court has never legally defined what an “affair” is. Second, the court has never ruled if having an affair is a protected activity.
Multiple appeals courts have said it is a protected activity, but the United States District Court for the Southern District of Mississippi says it is not.
Woodlake is claiming to have “immunity” because it alleges that there is a split of legal authority in the country about whether the government can fire someone for having an affair. The city claims it didn’t know whether firing someone for having an affair was legal or not — thus it has immunity.
In California, however, the law is clear that an employer cannot fire someone for this reason.
Additionally, Garibay didn’t have “an affair” as he is not and never has been married. Under California law, a person has to be married to have an affair.
Another problem for the city is Garibay’s claim that the City’s rule is being selectively applied.
He is the only officer to have been fired for what the City defines as having an affair, even though he alleges others employed at Woodlake’s Police Department have engaged in the same behavior.
When Melo and Sarsfield were asked if they plan to present evidence to support that Garibay is being singled out they replied, “We expect to. [That] might be why they are fighting so hard.”