Catherine Capriles, Palo Alto's deputy fire chief, is suing the city for an unspecified amount of money and seeks a writ of mandate after being suspended for three days in September 2016 by the department for alleged misconduct, according to documents filed in Santa Clara County Superior Court.
The dispute stems from a 2015 incident during which Capriles is alleged to have used a fire engine and crew for personal purposes to check out safety concerns in her Mountain View neighborhood. She allegedly bypassed the battalion chief and went directly to a captain to order the engine and crew to The Crossings, where she lives, according to document filed with the court.
Fire Chief Eric Nickel issued a Notice of Intent of Disciplinary Action against Capriles on Sept. 19, 2016, after a neighbor filed a complaint with the department in March of that year.
The neighbor, Paul Simoes de Carvalho, alleged that Capriles had committed misconduct as president of the homeowners association by encouraging the Mountain View Fire Department to review the neighborhood's red curbs and parking signage. He also alleged that she abused her position as Palo Alto deputy chief by having the Palo Alto fire truck drive through The Crossings, even though the development is in Mountain View.
Nickel's disciplinary notice alleged that Capriles committed three violations of the City of Palo Alto Merit Rules and should be suspended for three days.
Though Capriles said the crew was to assess fire-equipment access, Nickel concluded it was for her personal benefit in a neighborhood dispute. His notice concluded she also failed to tell the fire chief that she planned on contacting officials of a neighboring community.
Capriles filed an appeal, which was heard before Administrative Law Judge Michael A. Scarlett on March 1. Scarlett reversed the suspension on April 12 in a written ruling and directed the department to issue a written letter of reprimand to Capriles instead. He ordered the city to reimburse Capriles $2,582 in lost wages.
But City Manager James Keene on May 2 issued a "fact-finding result" upholding the original suspension. Capriles maintains in her lawsuit that Keene's decision was not supported by evidence and is "a prejudicial abuse of discretion," according to the lawsuit.
According to documents related to the administrative hearing, Nickel alleged Capriles' conduct breached city and fire department ethics and operational policies and placed herself, the city and others at risk, which constituted misconduct and a misuse of her leadership position.
She allegedly put the captain in a difficult position given that she is the second highest-ranking officer in the department. The battalion chiefs were unaware that the engine was out of town, and she claimed that the crew and engine were conducting pre-planning activities for fire safety, of which, Nickel concluded, there was not evidence.
(Pre-planning safety inspections can include evaluating red curb markings and parking restrictions.)
An independent investigator, Kristianne Seargeant, was hired to look into de Carvalho's complaint.
Capriles told Seargeant that she did not personally know de Carvalho but that he was a past president of the homeowners association. While president, he had some curbs in the neighborhood painted red, which resulted in a significant loss in parking. When Capriles became the association president, she asked the Mountain View Fire Department to review the curb designations to provide safe fire lanes and address inadequate parking.
Seargeant concluded in a July 26, 2016, report that Capriles had not abused her authority, had not misused department equipment and had not committed an abuse of work time, even though the action went outside of her immediately assigned responsibilities and bypassed the chain of command.
Seargeant also concluded that Capriles did not make any effort to leverage her position as deputy chief to effect any action with Mountain View fire and did not abuse her authority.
The controversy centered around emails Capriles had sent to the Mountain View fire marshal: In an Oct. 15, 2015, email she introduced herself as the Palo Alto fire deputy chief and requested assistance with the homeowners association concerns regarding appropriate access for fire engines in The Crossings. In an email on Oct. 27, 2015, however, she indicated that she had a Palo Alto fire engine drive through to determine emergency access, street widths and parking spaces.
The investigator concluded that Capriles had referenced her position as deputy chief in the first email solely within the context of an introduction, which was not repeated in the email while requesting assistance. Mountain View Fire Marshal Jaymae Wentker also told the investigator that Capriles had not requested any special treatment from him or anyone else at the department.
The Fire Department ultimately rejected Capriles' request to modify the fire lanes, which Seargeant concluded further indicated that she did not receive special treatment.
Nickel had also told the investigator that because of the mutual-aid agreement between the two departments -- which requires the closest engine to respond to a fire call -- the engine Capriles sent to The Crossings, Engine 65, would likely respond to any emergency there. Seargeant also found that it was "commonplace for fire engine crews to drive through their response areas to familiarize themselves with the various buildings they may encounter in an emergency."
But she noted that while it is reasonable for the engine to pre-plan a safety review, the Palo Alto fire department has no authority to take any action regarding the fire code or fire lane modifications in Mountain View.
Seargeant found that two battalion chiefs both believed sending the Palo Alto engine for pre-planning purposes is an appropriate use of department equipment. The investigator concluded, therefore, that Capriles had not misused the equipment, according to documents from the administrative hearing.
She also did not find evidence that Capriles violated department policy regarding using work time for personal business. Using her computer to send the emails fell within the department's allowance for "incidental and occasional personal use."
Seargeant did find that Capriles had bypassed the chain of command by skipping the battalion chief, who directly supervises the captain.
Administrative Law Judge Scarlett agreed with the investigator's conclusions but concluded that although Capriles had gone outside the chain of command, she did not commit an inexcusable neglect of her duties, as Nickel had alleged. As deputy chief, Capriles clearly supervises staff, including prioritizing and assigning work, Scarlett noted.
"More importantly, because the department did not have a formal pre-planning program ... it could not be established that the appellant failed to abide by her deputy chief's job duties," the judge concluded.
Scarlett noted that Capriles had "an otherwise stellar 22-year employment record with the department," and he determined the three-day suspension was excessive. A letter of reprimand was a more suitable level of discipline, he ordered.
Capriles is asking the court to set aside the suspension decision and to issue a new fact-finding hearing result consistent with the administrative law decision, to issue her a written reprimand instead of suspension, to reimburse her lost pay and for the city to pay any additional court costs and attorney's fees.