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 While this case is unpublished and therefore not controlling authority, it signals a warning to employees who might attempt to use California's anti-SLAPP rules to strike down lawsuits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.