Arguing that threats not backed by actions are nothing more than hollow words, a federal court judge in San Francisco on Tuesday dismissed a lawsuit filed by a public employees union against Contra Costa County and four supervisors, according to court documents.
The decision was the right one, according to County Counsel Sharon Anderson.
“I am pleased that the court agreed with the county’s analysis of this case,” Anderson said in a statement. “Judge (Thelton) Henderson’s order makes it clear that the facts do not support the (Deputy Sheriffs Association’s) legal claims.”
The Contra Costa County Deputy Sheriffs Association filed a lawsuit on Jan. 20 alleging that at least supervisors Karen Mitchoff and Mary Piepho made specific retaliatory threats against the union late last year, jeopardizing its constitutional right to free speech.
The union was then in the process of organizing with other public employee unions to gather signatures for a petition demanding the board rescind an October vote that increased supervisors’ salaries by 33 percent.
Supervisor Candace Andersen cast the sole dissenting vote and was not named in the suit.
The complaint alleges that Piepho told DSA President Ken Westermann that the association had “made a bad decision and it is not going to end well for you guys,” according to the complaint.
She also allegedly mentioned bringing “Chuck Reed type pension reform” to Contra Costa County, which association members took to mean a reduction in the value of their pension and retirement benefits, according to the complaint.
Mitchoff allegedly threatened to “come after” the association in its next round of negotiations, which are not scheduled to take place for more than a year.
The complaint alleges she told an association member, “I’m only going to be around for the next four or eight years. But the DSA is going to suffer for many years to come.”
Although supervisors John Gioia and Federal Glover are named in the complaint, the document does not mention any specific threats they made.
The county filed a motion to dismiss the lawsuit on Feb. 17,
arguing that the entire complaint “rests on the perceived possibility of potential future unlawful acts.”
“This speculative labor dispute does not belong in this forum,” the motion reads.
Henderson agreed with the county’s motion and acknowledged that Gioia and Glover both lacked culpability, saying “it is undisputed” they did not personally participate in any of the alleged conversations.
“Indeed, the lack of factual allegations against defendants Gioia and Glover makes it more plausible that defendants Piepho and Mitchoff misled the DSA regarding Gioia and Glover’s support in order to add weight to their threats,” Henderson writes.
The thrust of his dismissal, however, hinges on the fact that the right to free speech cannot be diminished by someone else’s speech, only by their actions.
“The county board of supervisors has not formally proposed any legislation or undertaken any vote that might negatively impact (DSA’s) members,” Henderson says in the order. “Instead, according to the complaint, two members of the board have made threats regarding future contract negotiations and issued harsh, but ultimately hollow, words regarding pension reform.”
The suit was dismissed without prejudice, meaning the DSA can chose to amend the complaint and re-file it or appeal the judge’s decision. Anderson said that might be difficult, however.
“Although the court gave the plaintiff the opportunity to amend its complaint, this order will make it difficult for the plaintiff to proceed,” Anderson said.
Requests for comment from the attorneys representing the DSA were not immediately returned.
The board did ultimately vote to rescind its 33 percent raise and later voted to give supervisors a 7 percent raise instead.