A former West Covina police officer who alleges he was fired in 2018 for testifying in favor of a Black officer who eventually settled his case against the city can take his case to trial, a judge ruled Wednesday.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Daniel Murphy denied the city’s motion to dismiss former Officer Jesse Miller’s complaint. Myrna Castanon, a lawyer for the city, maintained in her court papers that Miller’s firing was justified because of the plaintiff’s own behavior, including an August 2013 incident when he became intoxicated while off-duty and socialized with persons he believed were members of a criminal motorcycle gang and who were using drugs.
The city opened an internal affairs investigation and Miller admitted to engaging in the conduct and violating West Covina Police Department policies, resulting in his receiving a written reprimand in August 2014, according to Castanon’s court papers.
But Murphy said the weight of the evidence favored allowing Miller to have his case heard by a jury as to whether his firing was linked to his testimony on behalf of the Black former officer, Joshua Volasgis. Miller maintains his testimony was “protected activity” that shields him from punishment.
“The city’s evidence, although ponderable, establishes at best a … defense which would not invalidate plaintiff’s retaliation claims,” Murphy wrote.
Miller’s suit states that in August 2018 the city reached a settlement with Volasgis, who sued the city and four of his white ex-supervisors, alleging he was fired in 2017 after a little more than a year on the job for complaining that he was harassed because of his race and was called “big Black ghetto cop” and “the Black kid.”
According to Volasgis’ lawsuit, he performed his duties in an “exemplary fashion” after being hired by the city in June 2016. He claimed that throughout his employment, his supervisors told him his main focus should be to “stop Blacks in West Covina” because he had “free reign over the Black community because plaintiff does not have to fear any allegations of racial bias.”
The city and Lt. Ronald Allen, Lt. Kenneth Plunket, Sgt. Houston Clements and Sgt. Brian Prizzi were named as defendants in the Volasgis suit, which alleged racial discrimination and harassment, retaliation and failure to prevent harassment and discrimination.
The city countered that Volasgis was the subject of multiple citizen complaints, including one brought in 2016 by a Black man unhappy about how the officer had treated him and a woman who accused him of being rude and of lying on a police report in 2017.
Miller, who is white, began speaking out in November 2016, saying he believed Volasgis was being treated unfairly because he is Black, according to Miller’s suit.
In April 2018, Miller gave a deposition in the Volasgis case and corroborated that officer’s allegations against the WCPD, the Miller suit states. Specifically, Miller stated that Allen had made “derogatory and racial comments and gestures” toward Volasgis, the Miller suit states.
In retaliation, Miller was suspended without pay for nearly eight months, placed under greater department scrutiny, falsely accused of violating WCPD policies, subjected to meritless investigations and fired on Aug. 30, his suit states.
“Notably, plaintiff was terminated by defendant just 17 days after the Volasgis case was resolved,” the Miller suit states.
But according to Castanon’s court papers, Miller admitted that he never complained to the police chief about alleged racial discrimination or harassment toward Volasgis and admitted that he did not tell the chief that he testified in support of Volasgis’ lawsuit against the city.
Castanon’s court papers state Miller was involved in other questionable conduct, including in October 2016, when while on the K-9 unit he allegedly slammed his assigned police dog, Rocky, on concrete during SWAT training, leaving the animal with a fractured patella.
Miller failed to disclose his conduct to the veterinarians who treated the dog, who ultimately had to be retired, Castanon’s court papers state.
The city opened an internal affairs investigation and Miller was suspended without pay for four weeks, removed from the K-9 and SWAT units and was required to wear a mobile audio recording device while on duty, according to Castanon’s court papers.
In addition, Miller drank alcohol off-duty at a restaurant in October 2017 before entering Universal Studios Hollywood, Castanon’s court papers state. He put a concealed loaded semi-automatic gun in his groin area and inadvertently activated the metal detector when he tried to enter the theme park, Castanon’s court papers state.
When asked by Universal security about the protruding object in his pants, Miller said it was his private parts, according to Castanon’s court papers.
Miller admitted to his conduct regarding the Universal Studies security personnel and in November 2017 the West Covina police chief placed him on paid administrative leave for about eight months while an internal investigation was conducted regarding the injury to the police dog and his behavior at Universal Studios, according to Castanon’s court papers.
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