Friday, January 29, 2016

Officers' Off-Duty Use Of Cellphones Not An FLSA Violation

A federal court ruled the Chicago Police Department did not violate the Fair Labor Standards Act by requiring police officers to respond to work-related calls, emails, and texts on their department-issued cellphones while off duty.

In early 2010 several members of the Chicago Police Department's Organized Crime Bureau filed a lawsuit against the City of Chicago alleging it willfully denied them overtime pay for off-duty work. The department  issued the officers cellphones. The officers alleged the city knew the officers often worked overtime hours responding to work-related communications on these cellphones but refused to pay them for their work.

In Allen v. City of Chicago, the U.S. Northern District Court of Illinois conditionally certified a class of police officers who alleged the city owed them overtime pay and penalties under the FLSA.  The court then held a bench trial, after which Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier ruled the officers had failed to prove that the city knowingly violated the FLSA.

The court found the officers did in fact perform compensable work by using their cellphones while off duty. The court ruled responding to communications from their superiors, their subordinates, confidential informants, and other law enforcement agencies involved in police investigations or task forces was compensable work.

However, the court also found the department generally did not know about the officers' off-duty work using their cellphones. The evidence supporting the officers' claims was weak. No officer was ever denied an overtime request related to off-duty use of their cellphone, nor did any officer ever complain to the department about this issue. The few times that an officer submitted a request for overtime pay for off-duty work, the department was not told it was for work on a cellphone and the department always paid.

Because the city did not know about the extent of officers' off-duty work using their cellphones, the court ruled the officers could not recover penalties from the city for violating the FLSA. Instead, the officers could only recover unpaid overtime wages for the hours they worked. An employer is liable under the FLSA when it suffers or permits its employees to work overtime but does not pay them overtime wages. If an employer does not know its employees are working overtime, it is not suffering or permitting the employees to work and has not knowingly violated the FLSA.


Monday, January 25, 2016

CPRA May Grant Access to Personnel Records When There is a Strong Public Interest in Disclosure

In Caldecott v. Superior Court of Orange County, the Fourth Appellate District found records associated with a personnel complaint were subject to disclosure under the California Public Records Act ("CPRA"). The court also found an employee's motivation for requesting the documents was irrelevant. Also, whether or not the employee already had the documents was irrelevant.

Caldecott involved a former Newport-Mesa Unified School District employee's request for documents associated with a personnel complaint. John Caldecott worked as an Executive Director of Human Resources. He filed a personnel complaint against District superintendent Fred Navarro. Caldecott alleged Navarro created a hostile work environment and committed misconduct in regards to employee salaries. The District did not take any official action against Navarro, finding Caldecott's allegations unsubstantiated. Subsequently, the District fired Caldecott without cause. Caldecott alleged he was fired in retaliation for filing a complaint against Navarro.

Caldecott requested documents under the CPRA that were associated with his complaint against Navarro. Caldecott requested copies of the District's response to his complaint, and an e-mail Caldecott sent to the District's board regarding the response. Caldecott already had the documents, but he wanted the freedom to publicly disclose the documents without fear of liability. The District denied Caldecott's request claiming disclosure would cause an invasion of personal privacy. The District also denied his request because of "the potential impact of an unjustified accusation on the reputation of an innocent public employee."

The Court of Appeal ruled the documents were subject to disclosure under the CPRA. Caldecott's motivation behind his request and the fact that he already had the documents were irrelevant. Rather, the court weighed the potential harm to Navarro's privacy interests against the public's interest in disclosure. The court found a strong public interest in judging how Navarro responded to Caldecott's claims, especially in light of Caldecott's termination without cause. The court also found a strong public interest in assessing how the District's elected board treated the serious misconduct allegations against its highest ranking administrator. The court awarded Caldecott attorneys fees and costs for successfully challenging the denial of a CPRA request.

This case did not concern the confidentiality of peace officer personnel records. Penal Code section 832.7 creates additional protections for peace officer and correctional officer records.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Supreme Court Denies Active Duty Peace Officers Labor Code 4458.2 Disability Benefits Provided to Volunteer Peace Officers


On October 26th, the California Supreme Court decided the case of Larkin v. Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board. The Supreme Court ruled that Labor Code section 4458.2 does not apply to sworn peace officers who are regular, salaried employees of a law enforcement agency.  The Court held that this enhancement of disability benefits was only applicable to so-called "Posse Comitatus" (i.e. volunteer or certain reserve officers) and declined to extend the benefit to regular active duty officers.

Brian Dixon and Gregory Gomez from the Law Offices of Mastagni Holstedt, A.P.C. represented Officer Larkin before the California Supreme Court.  Larkin filed a claim for TD benefits under Section 4458.2 arguing the express language of the Section did not exclude full time active duty officers. Larkin sought these enhanced benefits after having utilized all available 4850 time.  The Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board had denied his claim for these post-4850 benefits. The Court of Appeal upheld the WCAB.

Under Labor Code section 4458.2 an officer’s temporary disability (or “TD”) benefit is set at the maximum statutory rate instead of being based on what they were actually earning. This means that if an officer was serving as a volunteer or reserve officer when they were injured on duty, they would receive TD benefits as if they were full-time employees of the agency. And the officer would receive TD benefits at the highest possible rate even if they were actually paid less while they were working.

This makes a huge difference in the amount an officer is paid for an on-the-job injury. Normally, an employee’s TD benefit payment is only two-thirds (2/3) of their regular salary. But under Section 4458.2 an officer would receive the maximum statutory rate of TD, as if they were among the highest paid employees.

To put this in real terms, in 2008 Police Officer John Larkin was seriously injured in a vehicle accident while on duty. His average weekly salary at that time was around $1000. The City of Marysville said it would only pay Larkin TD at two-thirds of his salary, meaning around $670 per week. But if Section 4458.2 was applied and Larkin was paid TD at the maximum statutory rate, he would receive over $900 per week in TD benefits. That is a difference of more than $10,000 over a year.
 
The Supreme Court’s explained Section 4458.2 was originally written to provide disability coverage to volunteer peace officers. Officer Larkin’s attorneys pointed out that the word “volunteer” was removed from the law in 1989 and is not in the other law it references (Labor Code section 3362). Selectively relying upon the legislative history, the Court held these amendments were not intended to broaden the law to apply to all peace officers. 

The Court further opined that regular peace officer employees are covered under Labor Code sections 4850 and 4853. These laws allow an injured officer to take up to one year of full-paid leave and then up to one year of TD benefits at the normal two-thirds rate. The Court argued that it was “balancing” the interests of regular and volunteer peace officers by denying regular officers Section 4458.2 benefits.

The Court ignored the reality facing many peace officers in smaller cities and rural counties. Officers like Larkin choose to serve in dangerous positions for less pay than their colleagues in wealthier cities and counties. They should not be punished when they suffer an on-the-job injury. But now, not only will officers like Larkin get less in TD benefits than many regular peace officers. They cannot even get the same TD benefits that volunteer peace officers receive. This ruling affects the rights of more than 73,000 police and sheriff patrol officers across in the state. (Employment Development Department, Police and Sheriff Patrol Officers in California.)

On behalf of the thousands of peace officers hurt by this inequity, Mastagni Holstedt, A.P.C. hopes the Legislature immediately fixes the law and overturns the Supreme Court’s ruling.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Chuck Reed's Pension Attack Fails to Make the Ballot for a Third Time

Earlier today, former San Jose Mayor Chuck Reed admitted defeat for his third attempt to attack public employees' retirement security.  Accordingly to the Sacramento Bee, the move appears to be motivated by poor polling for the initiative and Reed's inability to raise enough money to pay people to gather signatures in support of the measure.

Reed's campaign for a statewide attack on retirement security follows his failed attempt to attack pensions in San Jose.  Despite his repeated failures of this issue, Reed said he and his partners planned to bring the issue up again in 2018.  He said in a press release that he planned to "re-file at least one of our pension reform measures later this year for the November 2018 ballot."

Reed is joined in his effort by Pacific Grove Mayor Bill Kampe and San Diego politician Carl DeMaio.  Pacific Grove's attack on pensions was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

PERB Invalidiates San Diego’s Attempt to Bypass Bargaining Over Pensions by Voter Initiative

On December 29, 2015, the Public Employment Relations Board (PERB)ruled in City of SanDiego (2015) PERB Decision No. 2464-M, that the City violated the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act by slashing its plans through ballot initiative rather than bargaining. The three-member Board panel was unanimous in its decision, and ordered the City pay back employees for lost benefits plus interest. The City Attorney has already announced his intent to appeal the decision to the courts, since the value of the benefits the City stripped from its employees is likely in the hundreds of millions.

In 2010, then-Mayor Jerry Sanders began campaigning to “reform” employee pensions. This included a proposal to get rid of City employee pensions and replace them with much cheaper 401(k)-style benefits. In 2011, Sanders and his political allies created the Comprehensive Pension Reform Initiative, later known to City voters as Prop B. Though the Mayor is the Chief Executive of the City—and therefore the chief negotiator for the City in bargaining with employee unions—Sanders did not present his plan as a bargaining proposal to unions, and refused to negotiate when asked. 

The MMBA requires local agencies to meet and confer in good faith with employee organizations over wages, hours, and other terms and conditions of employment. Retirement benefits are unquestionably part of that duty to bargain. Under Seal Beach, public entities have long been required to satisfy bargaining obligations prior to seeking charter changes to employee compensation.  The courts and PERB recognized that if employers could bypass bargaining through legislative or voter enactments, the MMBA could be easily circumvented.  Thus, public entities must bargain over charter changes they wish to submit to a public vote if they impact compensation.

The City attempted to avoid its legal requirements under Seal Beach by miscasting the Mayor's Prop B as the action of private citizens, not public officials, and therefore argued it did not have to bargain with the unions. Sanders himself claimed during the campaign and in the PERB hearing that he was acting as a private citizen, not as the Mayor. PERB saw through the ruse, due to overwhelming testimony proving that Sanders worked on the proposal extensively in his capacity as Mayor, included his staff in the process, and made the Council aware of his intent. This was just a scheme to get around the City’s duty to bargain.

Though the fight isn’t quite over, PERB's ruling vindicates the long standing holding of Seal Beach and represents an important win for public sector collective bargaining rights in California.  PERB’s decision will likely next be heard by the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

Public Employee's Personal Grievance Not Protected by the First Amendment


Pete Turner was hired as a "temporary exempt employee" for the Department of Public Works (DPW) in the City and County of San Francisco. Turner complained about his temporary job status, claiming the City and his Manager Bruce Storrs were violating the City Charter. The Charter only allows hiring temporary employees for certain special projects. According to Turner, the City and Storrs planned to underbid survey work for City and County agencies to "corner the market." They would then be able to make up the money on these low bids by overcharging the public and underpaying the staff. Turner claimed he spoke out against this practice at union meetings, staff meetings, and in face-to-face meetings with Storrs. Turner claimed he was being underpaid and assigned work on matters outside of his job description. Shortly after filing a complaint with HR, Turner was fired.

When he was unable to secure a job as a permanent DPW employee, Turner filed a complaint against the City in state court. The district court dismissed his complaint, finding Turner did not state a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment. To state a claim, the employee must show his speech was protected.

In Turner v. City and County of San Francisco, the Ninth Circuit held the district court did not err by dismissing the complaint. The Court clarified that an employee's speech is protected when he speaks out "as a citizen on matters of public concern," but not when he merely airs a personal grievance. The Court distinguished Turner's case from others where the public employee's speech was protected. Unlike those cases, Turner did not raise his complaint in a public forum, like the Civil Service Commission or Board of Supervisors. Because Turner did not seek relief on behalf of other temporary employees, the Court found Turner was motivated by his own dissatisfaction with his job status. The Court noted Turner's allegation that the City and Storr were violating the Charter could touch on a matter of public interest. However, this was not enough for the Court to find Turner's speech was protected under the First Amendment.

This case illustrates that a personal complaint voiced in a private forum will likely not be protected under the First Amendment even if it touches on matters of public interest.


Monday, November 16, 2015

Supreme Court Shoots Down Excessive Force Case

On November 9, 2015, the Supreme Court ruled that qualified immunity protected a state trooper who shot and killed a dangerous driver in Mullenix v. Luna.

On March 23, 2010, Sergeant Randy Baker of the Texas Police Department followed Israel Leija to a drive-in restaurant with a warrant for his arrest. When Sergeant Baker approached Leija's vehicle and told him he was under arrest, Leija sped off and a high speed chase ensued. During the case, Leija called dispatch and threatened to shoot any officer he saw if they did not abandon pursuit. Leija was also intoxicated.

State Trooper Chandrin Mullenix also responded to the call. While other officers set up three sets of spike strips in hopes of disabling Leija's vehicle, Mullenix called dispatch to propose shooting to stop Leija's car. Mullenix's supervisor instructed him to "stand by" and "see if the spike strips worked first." However, it was unclear whether Mullenix heard his supervisor's command.

Once Mullenix spotted Leija's vehicle coming up the overpass, Mullenix fired six shots. Four bullets hit Leija in his upper body, killing him.

The issue for the Court was whether Mullenix violated clearly established law. Qualified immunity protects "all but the plainly incompetent and those who knowingly violate the law." The Court found no clearly established law barred Mullenix from claiming qualified immunity. As such, Mullenix was entitled to summary judgment against plaintiffs' claim of excessive force in violation of the Fourth Amendment.

In the sole dissent, Justice Sotomayor argued Mullenix should have waited to see if the spike strips worked before shooting. The majority of the Court was not persuaded. The Court emphasized that spike strips don't always work and officers manning those strips are vulnerable to gunfire. According to the majority, Sotomayor's reasoning was in error. Namely, it is not for the courts to decide whether an officer should use one tactic over another.

Although the Court refrained from considering what tactics and officer should use, many agencies' use of force policies do. Some agencies are now moving toward banning the practice of shooting at cars to disable the vehicle. In such cases, an officer may be immune from civil liability, but can still be punished by the department for insubordination or violation of policy.