Thursday, May 19, 2011 | 12:56 p.m.
A three-justice panel of the Nevada Supreme Court sided with a fired North Las Vegas police officer in an arbitration dispute, reversing a decision by a Clark County district judge.
In an opinion released today tied to a case filed in 2009, the high court ruled that Lazario Ruiz had standing to challenge an arbitrator's decision in district court.
According to court records, Ruiz had been off duty when he witnessed an altercation between his brother and his brother's business partner. Responding to what it believed was a robbery, North Las Vegas Police subsequently interviewed Ruiz concerning the altercation. He was then directed to police headquarters for a second interview, but one that was observed by Internal Affairs officers without his knowledge or consent.
The police department fired Ruiz based on the belief that he hadn't told the truth and had engaged in unprofessional conduct. The North Las Vegas Police Officers Association, a union, filed a grievance on his behalf based on alleged city violations of the Peace Officer Bill of Rights. The bill of rights, under state law, requires a police officer's employer to abide by certain procedures while conducting an internal investigation.
The city denied the grievance, prompting the union to submit the matter to arbitration. The arbitrator ruled that the police department had just cause to fire Ruiz. The arbitrator noted that the department had not commenced an internal investigation of Ruiz at the time he made his statements, meaning any rights he has under the Peace Officer Bill of Rights were not triggered.
Ruiz then took his case to district court, where he sought a new arbitration hearing. But District Judge Jennifer Togliatti sided with the city in dismissing the case. The city had argued that Ruiz had lacked standing to file the lawsuit because he was a nonparty to the arbitration proceeding. Togliatti further ruled that Ruiz had not met the requirements to sue under the Peace Officer Bill of Rights.
But Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Douglas and fellow Justices James Hardesty and Kristina Pickering reversed Togliatti's ruling and remanded the case to district court. The justices agreed that Ruiz had standing to seek relief in district court because the arbitrator upheld his firing based on information allegedly obtained in violation of his peace officer rights.
"We disagree with the district court's conclusion that a grievance that generically alleges an employee's wrongful termination cannot also encompass specific grievable issues related to the employee's peace officer rights," Hardesty wrote.