A judge on Monday overturned Sheriff Alex Villanueva’s controversial decision to reinstate a deputy who had been fired for violating department policies on domestic violence and lying — a dispute that sparked a rare legal battle among some of L.A. County’s most powerful elected officials.
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Mitchell L. Beckloff issued a preliminary injunction that says Villanueva must remove the deputy, Caren Carl Mandoyan, from his job. Mandoyan also must return county property, including his gun and badge.
“The sheriff’s decision to overturn Mandoyan’s discharge substantially erodes public trust and confidence in the county’s law enforcement agency,” the judge wrote in a 14-page order explaining his decision. “It also undermines the county’s employment and discipline systems and creates confusion with employees and the public.”
Greg Smith, Mandoyan’s attorney, said he likely will appeal the order and suggested that new evidence at trial could result in the deputy getting his job back.
“This is just a temporary thing,” Smith said of the preliminary injunction against Mandoyan.
But the judge noted that although the case is still pending at trial, the county is likely to prevail based on the evidence presented so far. Beckloff wrote that his order was necessary because Mandoyan’s reinstatement posed “significant irreparable harm” to the county. The injunction will remain in place until a bench trial, at which point the judge could make the removal permanent.
“I’m disappointed but looking forward to a full presentation of the evidence” at trial, said Villanueva’s attorney, Steven Madison.
Villanueva posted a statement on Twitter saying he was also “disappointed” by the ruling, but would remove Mandoyan until the case is settled at a trial. “My priority if your public safety and I will continue to enforce the law and abide by it,” he wrote.
The Times first reported the rehiring earlier this year, sparking outrage in some quarters.
The L.A. County Board of Supervisors took the highly unusual step of suing the independently elected sheriff and his department in March, saying Villanueva’s rehiring of Mandoyan was unlawful because it stemmed from a legal settlement that was not signed by the county’s attorneys and was not approved by the county’s personnel director.
The dispute was a high-stakes gamble for Villanueva, who relies on the supervisors to approve funding for his department. But the supervisors also risked looking powerless if the judge had ruled in the sheriff’s favor. The order bolsters the view that the Board of Supervisors has the authority to weigh in on controversial county employment decisions.
“This is a decided victory for the county,” said Supervisor Sheila Kuehl, who has been an outspoken critic of the sheriff.
Monday’s decision followed a delay on Friday, when the judge declared in jest that it was a “battle of the titans.” In general, the months-long power struggle has raised questions about whether the sheriff and supervisors can work together on other issues.
The order removes Mandoyan — whom county officials have been refusing to pay — from any work as a deputy.
Initially, Mandoyan had tried to secure about $200,000 in back pay from the county. Smith said he removed the issue from consideration and would probably not raise it again in court.
“Nobody is asking for it,” he said. “It’s of no consequence now. Based on the ruling, Mandoyan is not a county employee.”
Skip Miller, the attorney representing the county, said he would seek to keep Mandoyan permanently off the force at trial. Miller cited Beckloff’s order, in which he said the county had shown the claim against Villanueva’s decision had merit, and that it could be harmful to let Mandoyan continue to work at the department.
“This is an important decision for the people of this county,” he said. “The Board of Supervisors made a pretty tough decision to do this. They stood up, and they did the right thing. This is the right result, and I totally expect it to stand up at trial.”
In interviews before the ruling, Villanueva said he was just reasserting the proper role of an elected sheriff and trying to treat deputies more fairly than his predecessor, Jim McDonnell, did. He also has said he believed the supervisors didn’t have the power to control his department’s personnel decisions.
Mandoyan had been assigned to a position that does not involve public patrol operations, Villanueva has said. But county officials said they had concerns about legal liability if Mandoyan acted in a law enforcement capacity while his credentials were up for dispute.
Mandoyan was originally terminated in 2016 after internal investigators found evidence, including a video, that he had tried to break into the apartment of another deputy with whom he had been in a romantic relationship. The woman had accused Mandoyan of placing his hands on her neck and harassing her with text messages.
Investigators believed Mandoyan lied during the investigation, bringing his integrity as a law enforcement official into question. He appealed his dismissal to the county Civil Service Commission, which heard evidence in the case and reaffirmed his firing.
Mandoyan later volunteered to be Villanueva’s driver during his campaign for sheriff and was frequently seen at his side at election events.
At issue is whether Villanueva had the authority to reinstate Mandoyan, even as the Civil Service Commission upheld his termination. Deputies who want to contest the commission typically must file a writ in court and wait for a judge to evaluate the findings. Mandoyan avoided that process by striking a deal with the sheriff to return to duty.
It was unclear Monday whether Villanueva might appeal the judge’s order.
Kuehl said she and the other supervisors maintain that employees can’t be reinstated by department heads — including those, such as the sheriff, who are elected — after the Civil Service Commission has upheld a termination.
That would require approval from the county’s personnel director, she said. In the past, the county has told people in situations like Mandoyan’s to stop purporting to be county workers — ordering them, for example, to stop using official stationery.
“With the deputy, it’s even more important because they have a weapon and badge and authority,” Kuehl said.
“The sheriff,” she added, “has convinced himself that he has authority over all of his employees, not the Board of Supervisors. This decision shows him that he’s in error where there has been a final disposition.”