Septic tank worker who was cleared of dumping grease is suing the city

A file photo of fat, grease and oil clogging a sewer line.

BY ELAINE GOODMAN
Daily Post Correspondent

A Hayward man has taken to the U.S. Court of Appeals his case accusing the city of Palo Alto of maliciously prosecuting him in an incident involving the alleged discharge of restaurant grease into the city’s sewer system.

Thomas Medeiros filed his appeal with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on July 18. He is representing himself.

Medeiros was found guilty in March 2005 of discharging a pollutant into a public sewer system after a six-week trial in Santa Clara County Superior Court. The case stemmed from Medeiros’ work, as part of a three-person crew from A-1 Septic Tank Service, to clean out a kitchen grease trap at the Palo Alto Hills Golf & Country Club in December 2001.

The same day that Medeiros and his co-workers cleaned the country club’s grease trap, city workers responded to a grease spill from the sewer system at Page Mill Road and Alexis Drive, downhill and about a mile and a half away from the country club. The three men were accused of dumping the grease from the country club into the sewer.

Conviction overturned

But Medeiros’ conviction in the case was overturned by the California Court of Appeals, Sixth Appellate District, in August 2007. The court said there wasn’t enough evidence to find Medeiros guilty.

Medeiros then took things a step further, filing a lawsuit in federal court in San Jose that accused the city of Palo Alto of violating his civil rights and maliciously prosecuting him in the case. Last month, U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh granted the city’s motion to dismiss the case. Medeiros has now appealed Koh’s decision.

In his lawsuit, Medeiros said city workers are assigned to investigate environmental crimes without proper training. In his own case, Medeiros alleged, the city employees failed to secure the crime scene, didn’t interview witnesses, didn’t preserve evidence in the case, and didn’t obtain “obvious evidence of innocence.”

In particular, city workers didn’t check the pumper truck that was used during the country club job to see if it was filled with grease that was being taken away for disposal, the lawsuit said.

City workers accused of incompetence

The city “exhibited a deliberate indifference to the rights of citizens accused of environmental crimes … by allowing untrained and incompetent employees to conduct criminal investigations,” the lawsuit said.

In addition, Medeiros said, the city had a conflict of interest in investigating the case, since it faces potential fines for environmental spills within its boundaries.

Statute of limitations

In responding to the lawsuit in U.S. District Court, the city argued that the lawsuit, initially filed in 2017, was filed too late.

Medeiros initially took his accusations to the city by filing a claim in January 2008 — a step that’s required before taking a case to court. The city responded that Medeiros had filed his claim too late, a statement that apparently turned out not to be true but caused Medeiros to temporarily drop his case.

When Medeiros found out he had received allegedly misleading information about the claim filing, he sued the city’s outside claim administrator, George Hills Co., but the case was dismissed.

The city is arguing that when Medeiros finally got back to filing a lawsuit against the city, the statute of limitations had run out. In addition, the city said in a court filing that Medeiros hadn’t shown that the city intended to deprive him of his rights.

“Lack of training and incompetence on the part of city officials are not sufficient to establish an intent to violate plaintiff’s rights,” the city said in its filing.

Medeiros’ opening brief in the federal appeals court is due by Sept. 16. The city will then have a month to respond.

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