Lawsuit against Houma Police alleges unfair treatment of officers

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by Katie Urbaszewski / Houma Courier

wwltv.com

Posted on July 4, 2012 at 11:50 AM

Updated Wednesday, Jul 4 at 11:50 AM

A federal judge denied two Houma Police officers’ requests on Tuesday for protection from adverse job treatment while they sue their department.

Capt. Milton Wolfe Jr. and Sgt. Kyle Faulk, who both have decades of experience with Houma Police and filed suit last week, allege mistreatment after disagreeing with legislation that continued to keep the police chief position out of civil service protection.

Wolfe was removed from his position as chief of detectives and Faulk from recruiting officer and police spokesman after voicing displeasure with House Bill 106, which was passed last month.

Federal Judge Jay Zainey denied the protection order because “if our allegations are proven true, we will have adequate redress under the law for potential damages,” said Jerri Smitko, Wolfe’s and Faulk’s Houma attorney.

The suit names the police chief, parish president and state examiner, as well as their respective offices, and two insurance companies as defendants.

Wolfe and Faulk are requesting an unnamed amount of punitive damages as well as money that covers their attorney’s fees in the suit.

House Bill 106, penned by Rep. Gordon Dove, R-Houma, essentially extended the legislation passed in 2009 that allowed the Terrebonne Parish president to hire and fire the Houma Police chief at will, rather than requiring the hearing and due process under civil service rules.

“Captain Milton Wolfe made several remarks in his office to co-workers and other members of the Houma Police Association about his dislike for HB106 and the decreased efficiency it would continue to cause at the Houma Police Department,” his suit says.

Also, a letter was sent to Houma Police and other officials alleging that Police Chief Todd Duplantis would not have become chief in 2009 had the position been protected under civil service because Wolfe has more seniority than him.

However, seniority is not a factor when selecting a police chief under civil service protection, said State Examiner Melinda Livingston, who is named in the suit.

Seniority is the No. 1 factor for all other Houma Police promotions, except police chief, Livingston said.

Duplantis was named substitute police chief while former Chief Pat Boudreaux was on leave. At that time, the position was still classified under civil service. By the time Boudreaux resigned and Duplantis became chief, the law had passed making it an unclassified position.

Smitko drafted that letter April 19. On April 24, Duplantis removed Wolfe, Faulk and Capt. Tina Ledet, who the letter also named as someone with more seniority than Duplantis, from their administrative positions.

Duplantis declined to say why the three officers’ jobs changed, saying they were personnel issues.

Faulk was not named in the letter. A representative with Smitko’s office said Faulk’s job may have changed because he spoke against the bill during government hearings and also spoke to Dove about his opposition in a meeting.

Asked during the hearing why Faulk opposed the bill if Duplantis supported it, Faulk said at the time he didn’t believe Duplantis had a choice because Parish President Michel Claudet supported the legislation.

Wolfe was also disciplined within the department after voicing his displeasure with the bill, the suit alleges. He was given a few written reprimands for violations such as filling out an incorrect timesheet and not showing up for an assignment. The suit alleges these violations were common and minor, and Wolfe was “taken aback by the disciplinary action.”

Their new schedules prevented Wolfe and Ledet from off-duty details that supplemented their salaries, the suit says. When they discussed this with Duplantis, he “did not give any consideration” to the two captains’ loss of income.

Smitko’s letter also pointed out that Duplantis failed the police chief civil service test 10 years ago, and as a result “was never qualified to take the position of Houma Police chief.”

Duplantis acknowledges that he did fail that test, but he took it as a much younger officer, without studying and only for practice. The test does not have to be administered for substitute police chiefs, Livingston said.

“This is not that big of a deal because many, many times many people take the test just for experience,” Livingston said. “Just because somebody 10 years ago didn’t pass the test doesn’t meant that person might not be qualified.”

Laws like House Bill 106 are usually not retroactive, Livingston said. They often take effect for all future promotions, and Duplantis would not have likely had to re-apply for his position as chief under civil service if he was appointed while it was not under civil service.

However, Smitko said law requires Houma Police to choose a substitute police chief from a list of eligible candidates. In order for this list to exist, all those interested in the police chief position would have had to take the civil service test, but this did not happen.

Livingston and Claudet are named in the suit, it says, because “rather than conduct further inquiry into the consent decree and the constitutional violations, ... Claudet insisted that Representative Dove carry this bill, and Melinda Livingston sat idle rather than inform him that what he was doing violated the rights of other civil service employees.”

Livingston said taking positions out of civil service protection always concerns her office, but she cannot take a stance on state legislation.

“My job as state examiner is to accept what we’ve been given in any change of the law,” she said.

Claudet declined to respond to the suit’s specific allegations.

“We don’t believe the lawsuit has any merit, and we’re going to aggressively fight it in court,” he said.

Staff Writer Katie Urbaszewski can be reached at 448-7617 or katie.urbaszewski@dailycomet.com.

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