Beaumont wins appeal in litigation by fired firefighter who allegedly attacked drunk driver

By David Yates | Nov 15, 2017

BEAUMONT – For the better part of a decade, litigation brought by a Beaumont firefighter, who was suspended indefinitely by the city after allegedly attacking and detaining an intoxicated driver, has bounced between venues.

On Nov. 9, the Ninth Court of Appeals reversed a lower court’s order allowing James Matthews to change the election that he made first, which was to litigate the city’s decision before an independent hearing examiner, and to re-litigate the dispute in another forum, before the City’s Civil Service Commission.

When firefighters or police officers are involuntary suspended from their duties, they have the right to appeal such decisions to either the Civil Service Commission or to an independent third-party hearing examiner.

Justices concluded when Mathews opted for the examiner, he waived any claim to seek a forum change, finding the lower court’s order also deprives the city of the benefits of its collective bargaining agreement with firefighters.

Mathews was indefinitely suspended in October 2007. He was acquitted of the criminal charges in July 2009 when the alleged victim failed to show up in court.

An independent arbitrator ordered Mathews reinstated, finding the city had not given him proper notice of the charges against him. The city lost an appeal with the district court and then appealed to the Ninth Court.

In 2011, the Ninth Court issued a unanimous opinion stating that the arbitrator exceeded his jurisdiction by reinstating Mathews based on procedural issues.

In 2012, following an evidentiary hearing before a second hearing examiner, the examiner dismissed the challenge Mathews presented in his appeal of the city’s decision suspending him from his duties.

Mathews then sued the city in district court, challenging the validity of the second decision on several grounds.

In July 2017, nearly five years after Mathews appealed the second hearing examiner’s decision to the district court, Mathews asked the trial court to allow him to litigate the decision in a new forum before the Civil Service Commission.

The trial court rendered the order in favor of Mathews without reducing any of its findings or conclusions to writing, court records show.

“Because Mathews waived his right to proceed before the Civil Service Commission when he knowingly elected to proceed and litigated the dispute to conclusion before an independent hearing examiner, the trial court’s order, if allowed to stand, would subject the City to the expense of a third proceeding in a forum whose decision, regardless of whether it favored Mathews or the City, would eventually be reversed,” the Ninth Court’s opinion states.

Missouri City attorney Larry Watts represents Matthews.

The city is represented in part by City Attorney Tyrone Cooper and Gilbert Low of Orgain, Bell & Tucker, a Beaumont law firm.

Appeals case No. 09-17-00304-CV

Trial case No. A-192887

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