The court order that gave Jeff Schmeling his job back at San Quentin State Prison came too late for the veteran correctional officer.
He’d been dead for two years by the time a judge ruled in his favor, holding that state officials inappropriately fired him over a missed medical test.
The waiting continues for his widow.
Since 2015, the state has owed her five years’ worth of her late husband’s back wages. With interest, that’s about $505,000.
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“It’s the difference between me keeping my home or not,” said Toraun Schmeling of Santa Cruz.
The dispute stems from Schmeling’s ouster in 2007 from his position at one of the state’s most notorious prisons. He was fired because he did not submit paperwork demonstrating that he had taken a mandatory test for tuberculosis, according to court records.
Through eight years of appeals and court hearings, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation treated its decision to fire him as a precedent-setting case. It argued that it had the authority to dismiss him, and that the annual test for tuberculosis was critical because correctional officers who interact with inmates must be free of the infectious lung disease.
It continued arguing that Jeff Schmeling’s firing was appropriate even after a Sacramento Superior Court judge in August 2013 ruled against the corrections department in a similar case regarding a San Quentin correctional officer who did not submit paperwork showing he had taken his tuberculosis test on time. That officer, an 18-year state employee, was out of work for about two years, according to court records.
“The best way to ensure that legislatively mandated public health goals are met ... is to allow the department to non-punitively terminate employees who fail to comply with the tuberculosis testing and reporting requirements,” the department argued in a March 2014 court filing for Schmeling’s case.
$504,774Back wages, vacation time and interest owed to the widow of a California correctional officer who was fired over a tuberculosis test
Jeff Schmeling in his appeals argued that he had taken a tuberculosis test in January 2007 and that he trusted a nurse to deliver the results to the prison administration. In February 2007, his name showed up on a list of correctional officers who appeared to have missed the test. A prison lieutenant in March 2007 told him he was on that list.
On May 23, San Quentin Warden Robert Ayers sent Schmeling a letter warning him that his job was on the line if he did not demonstrate that he’d taken the medical test by June 4. Schmeling read the letter on May 28 and took another tuberculosis test on June 4, according to the State Personnel Board.
He received the test results on June 6, but the corrections department had already fired him.
“It was a comedy of errors,” said Schmeling’s attorney, Steve Bassoff. “Come on. Be serious. Suspend the guy until he gets you the test. Don’t fire him.”
In 2008, Ayers offered to reinstate Schmeling, according to documents that his widow kept. Schmeling then dropped his first appeal of his firing, assuming that he would be able to return to work.
But San Quentin did not bring him back on staff.
Another warden made the same offer in 2011. Schmeling did not get that job, either.
Administrative judges, courts and the State Personnel Board reached different decisions about whether Schmeling’s dismissal was justified.
Schmeling won the first round, when an administrative judge ruled he should go back to work. The corrections department appealed that decision in 2011.
An aneurysm killed Schmeling in August 2012. On Nov. 1, 2012, the State Personnel Board issued a decision that upheld his firing.
Meanwhile, in court, Schmeling’s widow advanced a civil lawsuit contesting his dismissal. In May 2014, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Michael Kenny ordered the corrections department to reverse Schmeling’s dismissal and pay back wages to Toraun Schmeling.
The judge found that Schmeling’s dismissal violated a state law that bans government agencies from firing employees for medical reasons. The department’s regulation that officers must take tuberculosis tests is “a condition for continuing employment, but it is unquestionably a medical standard,” Kenny wrote in rejecting the corrections department’s arguments.
The real robbery is that he didn’t get to win and see himself prevail.
Toraun Schmeling on a seven-year legal fight over her husband’s firing from San Quentin State Prison
The corrections department twice appealed Kenny’s ruling to the state’s Third District Court of Appeal. It also asked the State Personnel Board to delay a decision on how much money the state owed to Schmeling’s widow.
The board in April 2015 decided to move forward, and ordered the corrections department to pay her almost $400,000 in back wages and vacation time with 7 percent interest dated back to 2007.
Last week, the corrections department paid Toraun Schmeling a portion of the sum she is owed – $130,720, the interest on her late husband’s back wages. She received the money after The Bee called the department to ask why she had not yet been paid.
The next sum is expected to come from the State Controller’s Office, which manages the state’s payroll. Bassoff this week received a letter from a state attorney that said the money should be released within the next few weeks.
The corrections department declined to comment on the case, although a spokesman said the timing of the first payment to Toraun Schmeling was not related to The Bee’s call.
Toraun Schmeling described her late husband as her “first love.” They met at Diablo Valley College in their youth and reconnected later in life, after Jeff Schmelling had lost his job at San Quentin.
He was living in a car and camping in 2009 when they rekindled their relationship.
By then, he had cashed out savings and pension funds while he tried to stay afloat
“He was down and out. It was wrong for him to be suffering so much over so little and it was not his fault,” Toraun Schmeling said.
They married in 2011, while Jeff Schmeling was fighting to return to work.
“The real robbery,” she said, “is that he didn’t get to win and see himself prevail.”