A state hearing examiner has ruled that a Fort Worth firefighter fired after being accused of hitting an elderly man during a TCU football scrimmage should be reinstated — saying the city’s investigation into the 2015 incident ignored key evidence and violated his rights.
Texas court examiner AlmaLee Guttshall, ordered May 24 firefighter Shea O’Neill, 44, should be allowed to go back on duty with back pay — minus earnings from any job he’s held since his suspension began in July 2015 — and have benefits and seniority restored, reports the Star-Telegram.
In her findings, as reported by the Star-Telegram, Guttshall writes, O’Neill “did not receive reasonable or appropriate due process, and the facts and allegations were not fully investigated.” At one point in her 45-page ruling, Guttshall charges the Fort Worth Fire Department of conducting a “kangaroo court” when deciding to give O’Neill an indefinite suspension.
Despite her findings, the Star Telegram reports the city disagrees and wants a judge to block O’Neill’s return to work and filed a lawsuit in Tarrant County civil court Friday, asking state District Judge Michael Wallach to uphold O’Neill’s indefinite suspension, arguing Guttshall “exceeded her jurisdiction” in her ruling.
Although the city says it respects Gutshall, its plan is to move forward with an appeal.
“We disagree with the hearing officer. We do not believe we infringed on the due process rights of O’Neill,” Assistant City Manager Valerie Washington told the Star-Telegram. “We respect the hearing officer but we want to move forward with our appeal rights as well.”
O’Neill told the Star-Telegram Gutshall’s ruling is “fantastic news” but is disappointed that the city went to court to appeal the decision stemming from a December 2016 civil service commission hearing.
“Now that we get a ruling and some justice, the city is going dig up something bogus and drag us into court one more time,” O’Neill told the Star-Telegram. “The whole thing is shameful.”
O’Neill’s lawyers say the city’s appeal comes without factual or legal merit and the relief requested from the court is not permitted by law.
“In our opinion, the city should simply follow the final and binding arbitration decision,” Matt Bachop, one of O’Neill’s attorneys in Austin, said in an email to the Star-Telegram.
Fort Worth Fire Chief Rudolph Jackson said he regrets Gutshall’s decision and declined to talk about the facts of the case with the Star-Telegraph. As far as doing a more complete investigation, Jackson said his department decided to “trust” that the information it received from the TCU police about the alteration surrounding O’Neill’s case was valid.
“Whenever there is a case, you evaluate what you could have done differently,” Jackson told the Star-Telegraph. “I would say that you always evaluate yourself to make corrections.”
O’Neill tells the Star-Telegraph he hoped the examiner’s ruling would be the end of a two-year nightmare.
Besides dealing with the allegations in this case — which also led to a criminal trial — he had to answer questions about his 2013 arrest for a fatal stabbing in Arkansas of a 23-year-old man near Hot Springs, according to the Star-Telegraph. Investigators later determined that O’Neill was the target of a robbery attempt and had acted in self-defense and an internal affairs investigation was dropped.
O’Neill said his kids have been bullied and forced out of a private school. He said he’s had to live off savings and a cashed-in retirement account while being out of work.
“It would have been nice to have a meeting and say, ‘Wow, we messed up,’” O’Neill tells the Star-Telegraph. “But instead they come up with an appeal to hide their actions.”
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