SAN FRANCISCO (CN) - A sheriff's deputy who reported a DUI sting and cover-up that led to a colleague's criminal conviction may have a case for retaliation, a federal judge ruled.
The events leading up to the 2013 lawsuit
by former Contra Costa reserve deputy sheriff William Howard were described over a year earlier by winery owner Mitchell Katz. In that complaint
, Katz alleged that an employee for private investigator Chris Butler invited Katz to a wine bar in Danville on the pretext that he wanted to make a reality TV show about Katz's winemaking business.
Katz said the meeting was actually designed to lure him into drinking so Butler's friend, deputy Stephen Tanabe, could arrest him for driving while under the influence, which charge Katz's estranged wife could use against him in custody proceedings.
Howard's lawsuit picks up a month later, on Feb. 16, 2011, when an agitated Tanabe allegedly showed up at Howard's house.
Butler had just been arrested on drugs and weapons charges, and Tanabe wanted Howard to keep a package away from investigators, according to the complaint.
Tanabe then retrieved the item from his car, covered by a black plastic garbage bag, and told Howard to keep it in his attic, Howard said.
While the request made Howard "uncomfortable," he took the item in order to "avoid a confrontation" and then told his superiors everything on Feb. 23, 2011. Those supervisors allegedly followed Howard to his house, found that the package contained a gun and arrested Tanabe.
Over the next few months, volunteer services declined to provide Howard with legal advice, and Howard was removed from work for the first time in 18 years, according to the complaint. He was not scheduled to work for an entire week in May 2011, for the first time, he said.
Howard understood his subsequent reassignment to "civil" as a demotion. He said fellow deputies harassed him for several months and forced him to work alone.
The department allegedly fired Howard on Aug. 14, 2012, and refused to hold a hearing.
U.S. Magistrate Judge Nathaniel Cousins refused to dismiss the retaliation claim on Feb. 28 after finding that Howard may be able to show that he acted as a private citizen in reporting Tanabe.
In addition to the fact that Howard's was "not a routine report pursuant to normal departmental procedure," Cousins noted that the deputy did so off duty and out of uniform.
Rather than following orders, Howard was acting in "direct contravention to the request made by Deputy Tanabe to conceal the item," the ruling states.
Howard has also alleged that a county official told him he was "on his own" in providing a sworn statement, and that he would be treated as a civilian, not an employee.
Citing Howard's subsequent treatment in the department, Cousins said "it could be inferred that Howard was threatened or harassed by his superiors for reporting Deputy Tanabe's conduct."
There was also no need for Howard to complain to the California labor commissioner before filing suit, according to the ruling.
Though Cousins dismissed Howard's remaining claims, alleging negligent hiring, emotional distress, municipal liability and due process violations, he gave Howard until March 26 to file an amended complaint.
Howard is represented by Michael E. Cardoza from the Cardoza Law Offices in Walnut Creek. Cardoza did not reply to a request for comment.
Todd Boley, attorney for the defendants, said in an interview that his clients are "very happy with the decision dismissing many of the claims."
"We are confident we'll be able to prevail once all the facts are in," Oakland-based Boley added.
In May 2012 Butler pleaded guilty to seven federal felony charges, including drug offenses, conspiracy, extortion and illegal wiretapping, media reports show. Butler admitted to having worked with Tanabe to stage multiple drunken-driving arrests on behalf of his clients, most of whom were involved in custody battles or other legal disputes.
Tanabe was convicted last month of six felony charges of fraud, extortion and conspiracy and sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.