CHP officer claims discrimination over his Air National Guard service

A lawsuit filed by a California Highway Patrol officer is alleging discrimination and harassment in his Central California station over his requests for leave to serve in the Air National Guard.

Officer Christopher Lutz alleges that his supervisors in the Oakhurst Station, east of Merced, made it difficult for him to report for his guard duty on time, belittled his service as an inconvenience to his colleagues and falsely accused him of filing improper requests for leave.

Lutz is seeking damages in state court in Sacramento for discrimination, retaliation and defamation.

The lawsuit, filed in July, has become a test of whether claims can be brought against the state under the Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act (USERRA, the federal statute that protects civilian job rights and benefits for veterans and members of reserve units.

The California attorney general’s office argues that the state is legally immune to such claims. It has asked a judge to dismiss portions of the case alleging violation of the federal law. It argued in a court filing that, as a sovereign state, California cannot be sued under the statute.

Superior Court Judge David I. Brown scheduled a hearing on the motion for Dec. 4.

The lawsuit alleges that Lutz, who has been a CHP officer since 2005, encountered resistance to his leave requests after his 2011 transfer to Oakhurst, a small station at the foot of the Sierra Nevada.

His complaint says supervisors told him and others “that his absences from the CHP because of military duty and training caused inconvenience for the supervisors, managers and other highway patrol officers.”

They told Lutz’s co-workers that he “was to blame when the station was short staffed and officers were required to work extra hours.”

He also alleged that he was shunned in the field, causing him to respond to emergencies without backup.

After Lutz filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Labor, the lawsuit said, then CHP Commissioner Joe Farrow — who became head of the UC Davis Police Department in July — told officers in his National Guard chain of command that he “was dishonest and fraudulently creating military duty orders.”

A National Guard investigation cleared him but was “thoroughly embarrassing and humiliating” and damaging to his military career, the complaint said.

Lutz alleged that his supervisors also denied him state employment/retirement credit for the time he was away on duty and required him to schedule vacation to get time off for his duty.

According to the complaint, Lutz served in the Army National Guard from 1996 to 2002, then joined the Air National Guard. He has piloted C-130 transport aircraft on more than 100 combat missions in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. He has also led missions fighting wildfires in the U.S.

A statement from the CHP said the agency would not comment on the case but “is committed to supporting our military personnel while serving stateside or deployed overseas during peacetime or times of war.”

Deputy Atty. Gen. Michael D. Gowe declined to comment on the case. In filings to the court, he contested the court’s jurisdiction under the uniformed services act, arguing that the War Powers Act of the Constitution did not give Congress the authority to abrogate a state’s sovereignty.

“Although there is no reported California decision on this issue, other states' courts have concluded that Congress lacked the authority under Article I to abrogate state sovereign immunity in enacting USERRA,” the motion said.

It cited an appeals court ruling in Minnesota that held that, “while Congress may have wanted to abrogate state immunity against USERRA claims, it lacked the authority to do so."

A ruling for the state would not entirely derail the case, parts of which were filed under California law.

doug.smith@latimes.com

@LATDoug


UPDATES:

3:20 p.m.: This article was updated with a statement from the CHP.

This article was originally published at 2:30 p.m.

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