Lawyers representing Santa Cruz County in a wrongful termination suit filed by former Sheriff’s Capt. Ruben Fuentes have agreed to drop a counterclaim against Fuentes alleging that he participated in a scheme to have employees claim fictitious overtime hours.
The move has no impact on an ongoing separate civil case against Fuentes and Former Sheriff Antonio Estrada, in which the Arizona Attorney General’s Office accused the two of allowing employees to report unworked overtime hours as a way of compensating them for performing duties beyond their pay grade.
Instead, lawyers representing both the county and Fuentes in the wrongful termination suit agreed “that it is not in the best interest of judicial economy or the administration of justice to have the same, or similar, claims brought in this action against counter-defendant Fuentes, that are simultaneously being prosecuted in the AG case,” according to a stipulation filed at U.S. District Court in Tucson.
In response, U.S. Judge David Bury signed an order on Oct. 6 dismissing the county’s counterclaim against Fuentes, though he dismissed it without prejudice, meaning it could conceivable be brought again. Bury also noted that his order does not impact the admissibility of evidence in the suit.
Fuentes was ousted at the Sheriff’s Office at the start of the year by newly elected Sheriff David Hathaway, who took over following Estrada’s retirement after seven terms in office.
On May 24, Fuentes sued Hathaway and the county, saying he was denied due process when he was terminated under the assumption that he was an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed at any time without cause. Fuentes argued that in fact, he was a “classified” employee who had the right to contest his termination.
A little over a week later, the AG’s Office sued Estrada and Fuentes in state court, demanding that they pay back the $196,842 that the Arizona Auditor General said was illegally paid out under the overtime scheme from June 2013 through September 2018. (A lawyer for Estrada said the OT system was “standard operating procedure” and that county administration had been fully aware of it.)
When lawyers representing Hathaway and the county filed a response in Fuentes’ wrongful termination suit on Aug. 11, they agreed that he had been “involuntarily separated from his employment.” But they re-asserted that he was employed on an at-will basis, and said that if he felt deprived of due process in the matter, he had “failed to exhaust his administrative remedies or pursue the due process that he asserts was available to him.”
But they also included a counterclaim against Fuentes – which has now been dropped – reiterating the accusations made by the AG’s Office regarding the overtime payments.
Those allegations didn’t appear to be directly relevant to the county’s defense against his allegation of wrongful termination. Although Hathaway and the county might have made a good case for firing Fuentes over the overtime issue, it seems that they didn’t, and instead decided they could fire him with out having to explain why.