Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Court of Appeal Finds Department May Have Unlawfully Terminated Officers

On March 20, 2014, the California Court of Appeal found the Orange County Sheriff's Department may have violated officers' POBR rights when it failed to provide a pre-termination hearing after a potentially pre-textual layoff.

The officers were "laid off" from their positions at the Sheriff's Department after the Department re-organized to cut spending.  The officers received a formal termination letter stating the Department faced economic difficulties and the lay-offs were not based on performance.  However, the officers suspected their terminations had to do with their past disciplinary records.  The termination letter informed the officers they were entitled to a "Liberty Interest Hearing" if they responded within 14 days.  Emails exchanged between the human resources representative and one officer explained the Liberty Interest Hearing would not include any presentation of evidence or witnesses.  None of the officers responded because they didn't believe the non-evidentiary Liberty Interest Hearing would result in reinstatement.

One day after the officers were terminated, the Sheriff held an off-site leadership retreat and showed a PowerPoint presentation.  The PowerPoint included slides suggesting the key to improving the Department was getting the right people "on the bus," and the wrong people "off the bus."  The officers filed a lawsuit claiming they were terminated for punitive reasons, rather than the budgetary reasons asserted by the Department.  They argued the Department's decision to terminate them constituted punitive action without providing them with the opportunity for an administrative appeal.  POBR requires the opportunity to a full evidentiary hearing for officers terminated for punitive reasons. 

The Court recognized POBR requires a full evidentiary hearing when officers are terminated for punitive reasons.  The Court stated a full evidentiary hearing usually includes sworn testimony, cross-examination of witnesses, and presentation of argument by the public agency to which the officer could respond.  Also, the public agency bears the burden of proof.  The process offered by the Department as presented by the human resources representative fell short under POBR.

In addition, the Court stated this case had many of the hallmarks of a pretext case.  Warning signs for a pretext case are layoffs that do not involve massive layoffs based on fixed rules such as seniority, a relatively small number of officers terminated, and when the decision-maker is not bound by seniority rules when choosing whom to terminate.  On these grounds, the Court concluded the trial court erred in dismissing the case.