A former Riverside Sheriff’s Association official dismissed in 2005 after complaining about legal fees spent to defend a deputy accused of vandalism has won his federal whistleblower lawsuit.
Scott Teutscher, 55, of Temecula, believed that the Sheriff’s Association’s Legal Defense Trust unlawfully spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on a former deputy’s legal bills unrelated to his law-enforcement job. Teutscher reported it to authorities and was later fired by the association.
U.S. District Judge Robert Whaley ruled Wednesday, May 1, that Teutscher’s ouster as the association’s legal operations manager “was in retaliation for (Teutscher’s) reporting of suspected law violations to internal and outside authorities.”
The case has dragged on for years and cost more than $2 million in total legal bills. Teutscher last month won a jury award of $814,750 in the case, including $357,500 in punitive damages.
The judge also agreed with Teutscher that the RSA improperly spent its money on legal fees in the case he originally complained about.
“It goes to show I was telling the truth all along,” Teutscher said in a telephone interview. “This money belonged to the association members, and that’s whose money I was trying to save. That was my job, to protect their money and make sure it wasn’t being spent wrongly.”
The judge said use of the legal trust’s funds in the disputed matters was in violation of guidelines established under the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974.
That finding by Whaley opens the way for Teutscher to seek additional damage rewards, injunctive relief, and attorneys’ fees. Teutscher’s attorneys have until May 13 to list what else their client wants, and RSA attorneys have until May 24 to respond.
Current association president Robert Masson, who is not named in the lawsuit, declined to comment on the case, or whether the outcome will be appealed. Emails to attorneys who represented the association and individuals in the lawsuit were not answered. A phone call to the association’s lead attorney in the case was not returned.
During final arguments in the trial leading up to Whaley’s ruling, union attorneys portrayed Teutscher as a “prideful” man who chafed when a new supervisor started overseeing his work in 2004, leading to disciplinary actions and dismissal. “Pride is a big issue in this,” association attorney Jon Y. Vanderpool told jurors.
The dispute between Teutscher and the RSA stemmed from legal funds paid for now-former Deputy Duane Winchell, who pleaded no contest in 2004 to two misdemeanors in connection with trespassing and vandalizing at his former girlfriend’s home. He had several tons of gravel dumped on her property and cut down some trees. Winchell was sentenced to two years’ probation. His criminal record has since been expunged.
In final arguments during the April trial, Teutscher’s attorney Daniel P. Stevens of Tustin argued to jurors that “there were hundreds of thousands of dollars in question” regarding Winchell’s legal bills.
The judge said the fund was only justified making a $2,500 loan for Winchell’s legal fees as he fought a non-contact order in a 2002 domestic dispute, in which it would have made it unlawful for Winchell to carry a weapon. He was still a deputy sheriff at that time. He was fired in 2003.
Teutscher had sought about $2 million from the jury for lost wages and benefits for his dismissal from the RSA, which he said included being kicked out of the union as a retired member, making him ineligible to buy medical benefits through the union.
The former Riverside County Sheriff’s deputy had gone on disability retirement after 15 years of service, and was hired by the RSA in September 1999. He served as the association’s legal operations manager for its defense fund from 2002 until he was dismissed in 2005. He was paid about $92,000 in wages and benefits at RSA.
He said he currently works in a civilian role for the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department, reviewing candidates for own-recognizance releases. It pays about $50,000 a year, he said, and he claimed he cannot afford benefits.
Court documents from the history of Teutscher’s case indicate that all legal fees from both sides amount to more than $2.2 million.
“I have spend thousand and thousands out of my pocket fight this, and they have all the money in the world,” Teutscher said.
In legal documents for the federal court case, The RSA had called Teutscher’s lawsuit a “bad faith, cynical and hypocritical attack” on the union. Teutscher claims the defendants faked an email to make it look as though Teutscher had actually approved the legal funding for Winchell. Vanderpool denied in final arguments that the email was a forgery.
Beginning in February 2005, a series of anonymous faxes showed up at sheriff’s stations in Riverside County alleging embezzlement and corruption within the union that made allegations of improper legal expenditures regarding Winchell’s legal bill payments.
The faxes specifically named union president Pat McNamara and then RSA executive director Jim Cunningham. Neither man has those positions now with the union. Court records show Cunningham remaining as a defendant in the federal case.
The union launched an investigation into who was generating the faxes; the federal government launched one into the allegations the faxes contained. In December 2006 the U.S. Attorney’s office issued a letter saying its investigation was over. No charges were ever filed.
In the course of their investigation into the faxes, Cunningham and McNamara discovered that Teutscher had met with an internal affairs investigator from the Riverside County Sheriff’s Office about the allegations, Whaley said in his findings.
McNamara accused Teutscher of generating the faxes, and filed a defamation suit against him. It was dismissed in exchange for Teutscher agreeing to withdraw statements he made to one person – the widow of a deputy — regarding McNamara. Teutscher continues to deny he was the author of the faxes.
Teutscher was properly disciplined in June 2005 for failing to follow policy in responding on behalf of the trust to a nighttime officer-involved shooting incident, Whaley said.
But the judge said what followed in the next three months leading to Teutscher’s dismissal over an alleged hostile workplace incident – throwing a file into a trash can in the presence of an administrative secretary – was in fact
“a pretext to cover the retaliatory motivation for the dismissal” for going to outside authorities with complaints about payment of Winchell’s legal bills.
One of the remedies available to Teutscher is asking for his old job back, Stevens said.
“I don’t know yet. I haven’t gone that far,” Teutscher said Thursday. “I need to talk it over with my wife and my attorney.”