Thursday, March 9, 2017

Court Blocks Public Officials Attempt to Remove Personal Identification from Website

In Publius v. Boyer-Vine the court granted a preliminary injunction preventing 14 Senators and 26 Assembly Members from demanding a website remove their personal information.  They were relying on Government Code §6254.21(c), which allows elected and appointed officials to demand personal information be removed from a website if they feel threatened.  The court held the statute violated the Plaintiff’s First Amendment Rights and the Commerce Clause. 

The Plaintiff was a Massachusetts resident and manager of the website  People on the website began an online discussion about a recent incident in California.  A blogger posted the names, home addresses, and phone numbers of California legislatures who supported several gun control bills.  Numerous legislators reported threats and demanded the California blogger remove the information pursuant to Government Code §6254.21.  The California blogger removed the information without incident.  However, during the discussion on one user re-posted all of the personal information.  Legislative Counsel learned the information had been re-posted and demanded the Plaintiff remove the information.  He sought injunctive relief, claiming §6254.21 violated his First Amendment Rights and the Commerce Clause of the U.S. Constitution.

The court first determined the statute violated the First Amendment rights of the plaintiff because it was not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest.  The statute did not attempt to prevent true threats.  There is a difference between publishing private information and public information. The statute did not address the difference.  In this case, the information posted on line had come from public sources.  Additionally, it was underinclusive because it did not prohibit print media from disclosing personal information. 

The court also held the law violated the Commerce Clause.  The Plaintiff was a resident of Massachusetts being regulated by a California statute.  Regulating interstate commerce is a power held by the federal government.  The statute attempts to regulate information posted to the internet.  The court noted it is almost impossible for a state to regulate internet activities without projecting the legislation into other states.  The court found the practical effect of the statute was to attempt to control conduct outside of California.  Because of this practical effect the statute was found to violate the Commerce Clause.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Fourth Circuit Upholds Semi-Automatic Assault Weapons Ban

Recently, in Kolbe v. Hogan (2017) --- F.3d ---- , the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld a Maryland law banning certain semi-automatic assault weapons and magazines in excess of ten rounds. The Court ruled that the 2nd Amendment did not apply to protect these weapons. The court decided they were, “weapons that are most useful in military service” as described in the United States Supreme Court decision of District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) 554 U.S. 570. The Court also ruled that even if the 2nd Amendment applied, the law would be constitutional. 

Maryland's law prohibits semi-automatic rifles with folding stocks, a grenade or flare launcher, or a flash suppressor. The law also prohibits rifles that utilize magazines that can hold more than ten rounds and rifles with a total length of less than 29 inches. The law also banned semi-automatic shotguns with a folding stock and shotguns with a revolving cylinder. 

Proponents of the law gave evidence regarding the history of the prohibited weapons as weapons designed for use by the military. The evidence paid special attention to the history of the AR-15. They also presented evidence which suggested that there is little difference in the automatic and semi-automatic versions of the banned weapons. This was the proponents' attempt to prove that the semi-automatic weapons can be more lethal in certain situations. 

Proponents of the law also argued that keeping magazines under ten rounds would aid victims in an active shooter situation. They reasoned that it would greatly increase the number of opportunities for victims to disable the shooter or escape. 

Those challenging the law argued that the prohibited weapons have a lawful use for self-defense, hunting and shooting competitions. The parties gave evidence that large capacity magazines are necessary for self-defense and the defense of loved ones. They argued that a person under the stress of an attack has a tendency to miss shots and tends to have difficulty reloading. Accordingly, challengers to the law argued that large capacity magazines are necessary for proper self-defense.  

Arguments were also made that the State did not have a legitimate purpose for the ban and were simply trying to ban specific weapons. Challengers pointed out that the law did not ban some semi-automatic weapons which could be modified to be similar to those banned by the law. They also pointed out that these weapons cause a small number of deaths each year. This was especially true when compared to yearly deaths caused by hand guns and other deadly weapons. 

Ultimately, in a split decision, the 4th Circuit sided with the proponents of the law. The Court found that the banned weapons and magazines were “weapons that are most useful in military service." The 4th Circuit held that such weapons are not protected by the 2nd Amendment under Heller

Additionally, the Court ruled that even if the 2nd Amendment applied, the law was constitutional. The court stated that this was because of the compelling state interests in public safety and the reduction of crime. 

Thursday, March 2, 2017

CA Supreme Court: Public Records Act Applies to Public Business Conducted on Personal Accounts

The California Supreme Court ruled today that public officials' communications about public business is a public record, even if officials use personal accounts.  In City of San Jose v. Ted Smith, a local activist sought communications about a redevelopment project in downtown San Jose.  He made a request under the California Public Records Act (CPRA).  The request included any voicemails or emails from the Mayor of San Jose, the members of the City Council, and any staff regarding matters concerning the City of San Jose.  Initially, the trial court determined the requests to be valid.  The City appealed.

Then, the Court of Appeal reviewed the language of the CPRA.  The court ruled information held on private devices is not subject to CPRA.  The court reasoned the CPRA defines public records as writings owned, used, or retained by any state or local agency, not individual. The court believed this means individuals are not covered by the CPRA.

The California Supreme Court did not find this reasoning persuasive.  The legislative intent of the CPRA was to create a right of access to public information.  If the public document does not fall into a narrow exception the standard should be disclosure.  One notable exception is a law enforcement officer’s personnel file.

The Court reasoned the CPRA should be read broadly and construed to further the people’s right to access public documents.  If a document is used by a city official in conducting city business the document is retained by the city.  This is true regardless of where the document is stored.

The City's argued it should not have to look through personal email accounts for public records because it was too hard and would cost money.  The Court was unconvinced by this argument and held he government agency is required to disclose all records they can locate “with reasonable effort.”  However, it cannot avoid disclosure by declaring a request to be too burdensome.

Mastagni Holstedt filed an Amicus Curiae brief in the case representing more than a dozen public safety labor associations.  The brief emphasized how some high ranking public officials use their personal accounts to evade the requirements of the CPRA, especially in the context of collective bargaining and labor relations.  For example, during the Stockton bankruptcy, city officials communicated with purportedly independent outside consultants about modifying to their findings and recommendations using personal emails.  Prior to today’s ruling, government agencies could shield such information from disclosure under the CPRA.  Today’s decision puts an end to these practices.  Moreover, the Court's interpretation of the CPRA will likely be extended to information requests under public sector bargaining laws, such as the MMBA.  

From a labor perspective, permitting public officials, such as City managers, to bypass open records laws by using personal electronic devices would have adversely affected union access to information necessary to represent their members.  

The Court also provided guidance to public agencies for complying with these obligations while protecting privacy rights.  Notably, the Court recommended agencies require that employees use or copy their government accounts for all communications touching on public business.  In terms of searches, the agencies can comply by communicating the request to the employees and "then reasonably rely on these employees to search their own personal files, accounts, and devices for responsive material."  Attorneys David E. Mastagni, Isaac S. Stevens, and Jeffrey R. A. Edwards represented these amici.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Mastagni Holstedt is Proud to Fly the Thin Blue Line Flag

Mastagni Holstedt is proud to display a Thin Blue Line Flag outside its Sacramento headquarters. The Thin Blue Line Flag is displayed under the American flag on a custom built 30-foot flag pole at the corner of 19th Street and I Street in Sacramento.

"The Thin Blue Line Flag represents our appreciation of and commitment to protecting law enforcement officers statewide," says David P. Mastagni.  "Law enforcement officers face new and unprecedented threats to their personal safety and we are proud to stand in solidarity with them, as we have for more than 40 years," he said.  Mastagni Holstedt is the largest law firm in California specializing in representing public safety professionals and their labor associations, with offices in Sacramento, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area, and the Inland Empire.

Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Police Department Social Media Policy Found Unconstitutional

Liverman v. City of Petersburg (2016) 844 F.3d 400, involved two police officers who were disciplined based on two posts they made on Facebook. The two officers made posts that were critical of the administration’s practice of promoting inexperienced police officers into management positions. The City’s policy prohibited employees from: 1) making comments that would reflect poorly upon the Department or the City and 2) making negative comments about the operations of the Department. The first policy attempted to qualify itself by essentially stating that the First Amendment would still be observed and officers could comment on issues of general or public concern so long as those comments did not interfere with working relationships, efficient work flow, or undermine public confidence in the Officers.

The comments were purportedly divisive within the department and some patrol officers sought transfers away from the two officers. The two officers were given an oral reprimand and six months probation, but were told that the discipline would not affect their eligibility for promotion. However, several weeks later, a department chief changed the qualifications for promotion such that officers on probation were prohibited from promoting. When the two officers sent notice of their intent to challenge the disciplinary action, they were immediately subjected to several additional investigations which would have resulted in termination. One of the officers retired before he could be terminated.

The two officers contested the social media policy in civil court arguing that the policy violated the First Amendment, and thus, their discipline and the subsequent retaliation should be overturned. The Court recited First Amendment law stating that public employees generally do not lose their rights to speak on matters of public concern, but the speech must be balanced against the interest of the state in promoting the efficiency of the public services it provides. The Court found that the social media policy at issue explicitly restricted speech criticizing the department. 

The Court found it significant that the officers chose Facebook as their forum of choice which the court compared to writing into a newspaper's opinion section. By choosing Facebook, they were clearly showing an intention to communicate their concerns to the public, outside of the employment context. The Department did not establish a significant enough reason other than general concerns of divisiveness as to why such speech should be restricted. The “negative comments” policy did not contain the qualification which would permit comment on matters of public concern and was thus, unconstitutionally overbroad. Accordingly, the discipline against the employees was overturned and the Chief who imposed the discipline was denied qualified immunity because the law in this area was well-established.

Monday, January 30, 2017

Third Appellate District Upholds Elimination of Pension Pick Ups

In San Joaquin County Correctional Officers' Association v. County of San Joaquin the Court of Appeal upheld a County’s ability to force employees to pay a portion of cost of living (“COLA”) adjustments to their retirement program. This case involved two laws governing public employee retirement, the County Employees Retirement Law of 1937 (“CERL”) and the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013 (“PEPRA”).

Prior to PEPRA’s passage, the default retirement program arrangement was that counties and county employees shared the cost of COLA contributions to retirement programs. However, as an option, CERL permitted counties to pay all of the cost of COLA contributions of its employees if it chose to do so. This was known as a “pickup.” This pick up was a common strategy employed by Counties to provide a benefit that was less expensive than a salary adjustment.  In 1975, San Joaquin was one of the counties that agreed to pay the employee share of COLA contributions as part of some of its MOUs.

PEPRA was passed in 2013 to reduce unfunded liabilities in public employee retirement systems. One of PEPRA’s provisions seeks to eliminates the pickups of the employee share of COLA contributions, but does not take effect until 2018.

In 2012, the County negotiated a new MOU with the San Joaquin County Correctional Officers’ Association which eliminated the pickup. The membership voted the MOU down and impasse procedures were engaged. Once impasse was reached, the County unilaterally imposed the elimination of its pick up as part of last best and final offer. The Association challenged the imposition arguing that PEPRA shielded them from such a change until 2018.

Rejecting the Association's challenge, the Court found counties have always had the power to eliminate or reduce pickup under CERL. The CERL permitted the pick up employee costs of COLA contributions, but did not require the pickups nor restrict the employers ability to modify or eliminate them. The court concluded, “In short, the County always has had the power to eliminate the COLA pickup, subject to labor laws, and those laws permitted the county to do so in the event of a bargaining impasse, which occurred. Nothing in PEPRA limited the County’s power in this regard.”

Interestingly, the court cited Marin Assn. of Public Employees v. Marin County Employees’ Retirement Assn. (2016) 2 Cal. App. 5th 674, 681, review granted Nov. 22, 2016, (MAPE) in explaining "the historical backdrop animating recent pension reform legislation in California", but "express[ed] no view" over MAPE's "interpretation of precedent regarding the validity of changes to retirement benefits."

Thursday, January 26, 2017

First Appellate District Challenges Vested Rights Doctrine in Upholding Elimination of Airtime Credit

In Cal Fire Local 2881 v. California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the Division Three of the First District Court of Appeal upheld the elimination of the “airtime credit” benefit in Public Employment Retirement Systems (“PERS”). Airtime credit was a benefit available to CalPERS and some other PERS programs that allowed members who had already earned five years of service credit, to purchase another five years of “nonqualified retirement service credit.” The record reflected that PERS had been under charging for the benefit.  In 2013, the Public Employees’ Pension Reform Act of 2013 (“PEPRA”) was passed in what was billed as an effort to reign in unfunded pension liabilities. One of the provisions of PEPRA eliminated the ability to purchase airtime credit.

The court considered whether the ability to purchase airtime credit was a “vested benefit.” The court started its analysis with a general presumption against the granting of a vested benefit, unless its text or legislative history evidence an intent to be bound. Applying the reasoning in Employees Assn. of Orange County, Inc. v. County of Orange (2011) 52 Cal.4th 1171, the court held “there is nothing in either the text of the statute, or its legislative history, that unambiguously states an intent by the Legislature to create a vested pension benefit. This demonstration of intent, as we explained above, is required by California law.” The court found no such intent with respect to airtime.

Further, the court held no right was destroyed, noting PEPRA provided members with a seven month window to purchase the service credit, and that such applications would be honored if they were submitted prior to December 31, 2012. "Thus, nothing in the revised statutory scheme immediately destroyed plaintiffs’ right to purchase the airtime service credit ... To the extent plaintiffs lost out on the opportunity to purchase the airtime service credit, such loss was, accordingly, a product of their own doing."

The court also held that the elimination of airtime did not destroy any benefit because the cost of airtime was always intended to be borne entirely by the employee.  Because the benefit was established as cost neutral to the employer, "the employees, not the state, paid for this benefit" and therefore the court held "this simply is not a case where the state provided a retirement benefit to its employees in exchange for their work performance, and then took the benefit away."

Most significantly, the court endorsed Division Two of the First District's holdings in Marin Association of Public Employees v. Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association (MAPE) regarding the authority of the Legislature to reduce retirement benefits s long as they do not destroy the pension.  This superfluous basis for upholding the elimination of airtime is striking given that the Supreme Court had granted Review of MAPE.

MAPE broke with a half century of precedent holding that any modification of a pension resulting in a detriment must include an offsetting advantage.  On November 22, 2016, the California Supreme Court issued an order granting review of MAPE, holding, "The petition for review is granted. Further action in this matter is deferred pending the decision of the Court of Appeal, First Appellate District, Division Four, in Alameda County Deputy Sheriff's Association et al. v. Alameda County Employees' Retirement Association et al., A141913
Although the elimination of airtime is not particularly significant, the court's unnecessary adoption of the MAPE reasoning in the face of Supreme Court review could affect broader legal principles involving the California vested rights doctrine.  Our office currently is representing two law enforcement associations in two separate pension related appeals in the First Appellate District, including the Alameda Deputy Sheriff's Association.  2017 is shaping up to be an important year for determination pension rights.