Judge orders sheriff’s deputy reinstated pending appeal of termination

Iron County Commissioners withdrew their appeal of Iron County sheriff's Lt. Jody Edwards' reinstatement Wednesday and filed motion for dismissal of the case Thursday, Nov. 19, 2015, in 5th District Court, Cedar City, Utah | Composite image, St. George News

CEDAR CITY – After months of having his future tied up in court, former Iron County Sheriff Deputy Lt. Jody Edwards was granted a reprieve Friday when a 4th District Court judge ordered the county to reinstate the former deputy to full-time employment status at the sheriff’s office.

As part of his ruling, Judge James Brady also directed Iron County to pay Edwards his full salary and benefits retroactive to the time of his termination nearly seven months ago.

“I am happy for Jody and his family and I am happy for the sheriff,” Edwards’ attorney Scott Burns said. “This has been a very difficult process for all of them. This has been months and months of just jumping through hoops and waiting and then jumping through more hoops and waiting so it’s nice to finally have a decision.”

Edwards has been embroiled in a legal battle with the county since the commission voted to terminate him on April 30. The commissioners say the move was part of a reduction in force they initiated after electing to sell the ambulance service to Gold Cross, therefore, eliminating Edwards’ position as lieutenant over the ambulance department.

Sheriff Mark Gower had promoted Edwards to that assignment in November 2012 after the commissioners put the ambulance department under the umbrella of the sheriff’s office.

County officials maintain Edwards was one of 70 employees to lose their job as part of the reduction in force; however, Gower said that’s not entirely true.

As part of their proposal to purchase the ambulance service, Gower said, Gold Cross promised to rehire any county EMTs or paramedics who applied with their company. Likewise, he said, the commissioners created and funded two part-time positions in the county for Stephanie Orton to replace the one job she had had as secretary at the ambulance department.

“The commissioners and the county attorney’s office can say he was one of 70 employees that were RIF’ed,” Gower said, “but the other employees had jobs to go to after the ambulance service was sold – Lt. Edwards didn’t.”

Edwards appealed the commissioners’ decision to the Career Service Council arguing he was in fact not part of the RIF but was terminated by the county commissioners who, he said, overstepped their authority in doing so.

“The RIF policy is the first one in the last one out, meaning that the first one hired is the last one fired. Lt. Edwards was second only to the sheriff in his time spent in the county. He had 23 years (22 years and 3 months) in the Sheriff’s Office,” Burns said. “So under the county’s own RIF policy the commissioners should have gone to the sheriff and told him that he needed to RIF somebody and then the sheriff decides who that is – not the commissioners. That’s not their right and they don’t have that authority.”

CSC ruled in Edwards’ favor on July 7 and issued an order to the county to reinstate him to the Sheriff’s Office with back pay.

The county immediately challenged the CSC’s decision in an appeal to the district court where the commissioners argued the three-member board appointed by the commissioners had overstepped their authority in ordering Edwards’ reinstatement.

Subsequently, Human Resource Director Leslie Bishop sent out an email to the sheriff notifying him of the county’s decision to appeal and that the CSC’s ruling would be stayed until the court proceedings were finished.

Friday’s ruling came in answer to a petition filed by Burns on behalf of Edwards last month asking the judge to honor the CSC’s decision and reinstate his client during the appeal.

In response, the county laid out several reasons for the court to keep the stay in effect:

  • The county had no way to offer back pay to Edwards since his prior assignment had been dissolved
  • The county had not budgeted money in the Sheriff’s Office to pay Edwards
  • Since Edwards’ former position was done away with, the county has no current position available in the Sheriff’s Office for Edwards to return to
  • Edwards may lack the ability to repay the money to the county that he is paid upon reinstatement if he loses the appeal
  • The CSC exceeded its authority in issuing its ruling

The court disagreed.

In his written ruling regarding the county’s first argument, Brady echoed sentiments he had said about the issue less than two weeks before during a court hearing with both parties; he wrote:

Iron County’s argument that the Sheriff’s budget lacks sufficient funds is not persuasive. Iron County has the sole ability to determine the amount of the Sheriff’s budget, and to amend the budget throughout the fiscal year to meet any overage or shortfall that may occur during the budget year. The Sheriff’s annual budget is at best a well informed estimate of revenues and expenses. It is not intended to be an absolute limit on either.

The judge continued, “Should revenues exceed the budget estimated revenues, Iron County would not be prohibited from accepting funds that exceed its budget. Likewise, Iron County cannot hide behind its budget to claim it lacks funds to pay an obligation it is ordered to pay.”

Regardless of whether the budget could be adjusted, transferred or amended, Brady noted, it was represented without opposition that the sheriff can make administrative staffing adjustments to cover the costs of compliance with the CSC’s ruling.

As to the county’s argument there is no open lieutenant position for Edwards to return to, Brady wrote: “This argument is also not persuasive. If this type of argument were able to defeat a CSC ruling to reinstate an employee who was terminated, it would render the CSC and the appeal process impotent.”

The district judge also declined to “speculate,” he wrote, whether Edwards would be required to repay salary given on reinstatement should he lose his case on appeal or his ability to do so.

In regards to the county’s final argument, Brady wrote, “No injustice will occur by denying the Iron County’s motion to stay the CSC’s ruling.”

Brady did however call the CSC’s ruling “ambiguous” in that the council did not clearly “affirm, modify, vacate, or set aside” the county’s order regarding Edwards’ termination. Brady sent the matter back to the CSC to clarify their position on the issue.

Susan Dunn, an attorney representin`g Iron County, said in an email, the court’s order is consistent with a proposal the county previously made to Edward, an order, she said he rejected.

“Iron County has been making efforts to get Jody Edwards reinstated in the Iron County Sheriff’s Office since the ambulance service was closed on April 30, 2015. On September 11, 2015 Iron County proposed options for Mr. Edwards to be reinstated. The court order is consistent with the proposal made to Mr. Edwards nearly two months ago,” she said. “We are confident Sheriff Gower will work with the Iron County Commissioners to find a suitable position for Mr. Edwards.”

Edwards did not accept the offer, Burns said, because it would have nullified the current appeal and leave his client ineligible to receive back pay and benefits and any attorneys fees. It also could affect his retirement, he added.

Gower said Friday, he is grateful to everyone who has worked so hard in this case and is hopeful he and the commissioners can work together to bring Edwards back to work.

“There’s a lot of people to thank that have helped out on this. There’s been a lot of blood, sweat and tears that have gone into this and I appreciate everyone that’s been involved,” the sheriff said. “I am also hopeful that the commissioners can sit down and work on meeting all of our needs to bring Jody back. I want to work with them professionally. I mean that. I don’t want contention. I hope we can all clean the slate moving forward.”

With this part of the court proceedings behind him, Burns said he is optimistic but the fight isn’t over.

“We’re 90 percent there but we still have 10 percent to go but I’m happy for Jody. The county commissioners and the county attorney’s office have put a lot in front of him and every time he’s prevailed,” Burns said. “They even reported him to the (attorney general’s) office and he prevailed there too. But after all this is over where does he go to get his name and reputation back? What office would that be?”

Edwards said he was grateful for the judge’s ruling but isn’t ready to publicly comment at this point.

“The case isn’t finished yet so I just want to wait to say anything,” he said. “I’ll have plenty to say when everything is done.”

Brady counseled both parties during the Nov. 4 hearing not to interpret this first decision as an indication of what his final ruling will be as, he said, they are two entirely different matters.

Going forward the district court takes on the role of a higher appellate court and only determines whether the council’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious.”

The two words are legal terms defined in Black’s Law Dictionary as “a willful and unreasonable action without consideration or in disregard of facts or law or without determining principle.”

Burns said he will be talking with Dunn on Monday to see what steps they need to take to get Edwards back to work as quickly as possible. He said he also plans to ask the county for a check for around $30,000 in back pay for his client.

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Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, SaintGeorgeUtah.com LLC, 2015, all rights reserved.

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1 Comment

  • mesaman November 15, 2015 at 7:27 pm

    Congratulations Lt Edwards. It must have been an horrific, drawn-out year for you. I guess the best way for me to see it is to write; good guys 1, elected bad guys 0.

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