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.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

U.S. Supreme Court Bolsters Qualified Immunity

In White v. Pauly, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous per curiam (unauthored) opinion overturning a lower court's denial of qualified immunity to a police officer in an excessive force case. Law enforcement officers are frequently sued for money damages where they are alleged to have violated a person's constitutional rights in the performance of their duties. Qualified immunity protects officers from such lawsuits where the law they violated isn't "clearly established."

Officer White arrived late to an ongoing police action outside the home of Daniel and Samuel Pauly. Upon approaching the house already surrounded by two other officers, Officer White heard Daniel and Samuel Pauly yelling “we have guns,” followed by shots being fired from the house. Shortly after, Samuel opened the front window and pointed a handgun in Officer White’s direction. After another officer fired several shots at Samuel and missed, Officer White shot and killed Samuel.

Relying on the language of Tennessee v. Garner as clearly establishing the law that officers must give a warning where feasible, the Tenth Circuit denied Officer White qualified immunity reasoning that a reasonable officer in White's position would have known he should have given a warning before shooting despite the seriousness of the threat.   The appellate court  “concluded that a reasonable officer in White’s position would have known that, since the Paulys could not have shot him unless he moved from his position behind a stone wall, he could not have used deadly force without first warning Samuel Pauly to drop his weapon.’

The Supreme Court reversed, finding no no clearly established law in this case. "Clearly established federal law does not prohibit a reasonable officer who arrives late to an ongoing police action in circumstances like this from assuming that proper procedures, such as officer identification, have already been followed. No settled Fourth Amendment principle requires that officer to second-guess the earlier steps already taken by his or her fellow officers in instances like the one White confronted here."  The appellate court failed to identify a case where an officer acting under similar circumstances was held to have violated the Fourth Amendment.

This ruling represents a significant win for law enforcement. In denying qualified immunity to officers, trial courts must consider the particularities of the case rather than relying on general legal principles as providing officers with clear notice their actions are unconstitutional. The Court explained, "[t]oday, it is again necessary to reiterate the longstanding principle that 'clearly established law' should not be defined 'at a high level of generality.'" Otherwise, qualified immunity would be converted "into a rule of virtually unqualified liability simply by alleging violation of extremely abstract rights.”

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

California Appeals Court Holds That Public Speech Protection Law Cannot Be Used To Stifle Suit Against County

In a victory for public employees, a California court of appeals shut down an attempt by the County to strike a sheriff's deputy's lawsuit against the county alleging that they retaliated against him for asserting his privacy rights in his medical record. While this case is unpublished and therefore not controlling authority, it signals a warning to employees who might attempt to use California's anti-SLAPP rules to strike down lawsuits asserting MMBA and POBR violations.

By way of background, California's "anti-SLAPP" or anti-Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation is a civil code section used to punish those who bring lawsuits which are intended to stop or retaliate against speech made during "official proceedings." The idea behind anti-SLAPP is to prevent persons from stifling protected free speech by filing a lawsuit. However, public employers often attempt to classify their disciplinary proceedings as "official proceedings" and their recommendations for discipline as "protected speech." While this is a perversion of the spirit and purpose of the law, that does not stop management from trying to use it.

In Association for Los Angeles Deputy Sheriffs v. County of Los Angeles (2016) Second District Court of Appeal, Case No: B260584, A deputy injured himself at work and became addicted to pain killers for two years. He later entered a drug dependency treatment program and returned to full duty. After a later back surgery he again obtained pain medications from several different physicians. At some point, an unknown person from the Sheriff's Department accessed his record of prescriptions in the database and saw that he had several prescriptions from different doctors. The Deputy then discarded all of his medications.

The Deputy was meeting all of his performance requirements, but shortly after the unauthorized access, as many as six supervisors asked to get consent to access his prescription information in the database. They also asked him to voluntarily submit to a psychological fitness for duty evaluation. The County Occupational Health Department requested that he submit to a fitness for duty examination given his refusal to provide access to his prescription record. When he met with the psychologist, the doctor refused to do an exam unless he provided his medical records. The deputy was then ordered to take a medical leave of absence and was refused the opportunity to return to work. 
The Association sued alleging, among other things, violation of privacy rights and retaliation for asserting his privacy rights. The County moved to strike all claims on anti-SLAPP grounds arguing that the referral of the plaintiff to Occupational Health was protected speech and the process by which the County required the Plaintiff to submit to a fitness for duty test was an official proceeding for purposes of SLAPP. The trial court agreed and ordered the Plaintiff to pay the defendant’s costs of suit.

The appellate court noted that the meaning of "official proceeding" continues to elude definitive judicial interpretation, but should generally be limited to proceedings of a public nature and that this case was likely an internal matter, not a public proceeding. However, the appellate court did not need to reach that question because the claims in this case did not arise out of that process anyway. SLAPP case law draws a distinction between speech made in connection with an official proceeding, and the decision made because of that proceeding. The thrust of plaintiff’s arguments stemmed from the decisions made by the Department after the proceeding, not from the statements themselves. Thus, SLAPP was inapplicable here.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Third Appellate District Upholds Award of Penalties for Late Advance Disability Pension Payments

In the recently decided Gage v. Workers Compensation Appeals Board, (CA3, Nov. 22, 2016 No. C081618)  the Court upheld the ability for employees to receive penalties for late advance disability pension payments. In this case, a Sacramento County Sheriff’s Deputy, represented by Greg Gomez of Mastagni Holstedt, APC, sustained a job-related injury and applied for an industrial disability retirement. In cases like these involving peace officers, the injured party can also apply for advance disability pension payments in order to cover living expenses while the disability retirement application is being decided.

Here, Gage petitioned for these advance payments and applied for industrial disability retirement on March 6, 2015. When payments did not arrive, Gage petitioned for late payment penalties against the County on June 2. The County claimed not to have received the application until June 11. The County also asserted that the Workers Compensation Appeal Board (WCAB) did not have authority over advance payments of pension because that would fall under another a different law (County Employees Retirement Law of 1937), and thus it could not apply penalties.

While this issue was being decided, the County continued to stall payments due to some additional technicalities (legal joinder). On June 29, it finally approved payment of benefits. Gage filed a petition for penalties because the benefit check wouldn’t arrive until July 2, almost 4 months after her initial request.

A workers compensation judge initially agreed with Gage that disability pension payments were considered compensation, and thus were subject to penalties for late payment. The County appealed arguing that advance pension disability payments were an obligation of the retirement system, and thus not subject to the penalty. On appeal, the WCAB overturned the workers compensation judge’s initial decision.

When the case was finally appealed to the Third Appellate District, the Court explained that the workers compensation law was intended to be liberally construed for the purpose of extending benefits to those injured in the course of employment. This includes making sure that those in law enforcement are given all the rights attendant to the workers compensation law. The advance disability pension payments are specifically provided to help officers who would otherwise have difficulty making the monthly bills if they had no income due to being injured. In fact, the payment of such benefits was made mandatory in 2002.

The Court also discredited the County’s argument that under the applicable code section, the repayment of retirement benefits was outside of WCAB’s jurisdiction. The Court stated that while the repayment of retirement benefits once disability retirement was approved was outside the scope of the WCAB’s jurisdiction, that did not bar it from asserting penalties on late payments, because such payments are considered compensation and therefore fall under WCAB’s jurisdiction. While the court remanded the case to determine if the delay in this case was sufficiently unreasonable such that penalties were required, this case still stands as a big win for employees seeking disability retirement. Mastagni Holstedt, APC is requesting that this case be published so that it has precedential value.

Mastagni Holstedt, APC is privileged to have represented the Sacramento Deputy Sheriffs Association and Ms. Gage in obtaining this important result. Greg Gomez of Mastagni Holstedt, APC represented Ms. Gage in this matter.