Friday, November 14, 2014

Hearing Officers Must Exercise Independent Judgment When Reviewing Discipline Cases

The California Court of Appeal in Quintanar v. County of Riverside held that hearing officers must exercise their independent judgment when reviewing department discipline.

Quintanar is a Deputy in the Riverside County Sheriff's Department. The Department demoted Quintanar after he allegedly used excessive force. Pursuant to the procedures outlined in the MOU, Quintanar filed an administrative appeal which triggered a hearing before an impartial hearing officer. The MOU gave the hearing officer broad review powers. This included the ability to hold a full-scale evidentiary hearing where the hearing officer had to issue findings of fact and conclusions of law. Crucially, the MOU allowed the hearing officer to sustain, modify, or rescind the department imposed discipline.

The Court of Appeal concluded the MOU required the hearing officer to use his independent judgment in reviewing the discipline. The court seized on the broad hearing power and the ability to modify the discipline to justify its holding. While the hearing officer could consider the department's discipline as evidence, the hearing officer was not bound by those recommendations.

Many MOUs across the state contain similar language to the provisions in this case. In most cases, the MOU will not explicitly require the hearing officer to exercise independent judgment. However, if the MOU allows the hearing officer to "sustain, modify, or rescind" the department's discipline or if it allows the hearing officer to submit findings of fact or conclusions of law, courts may now require the hearing officer to exercise his or her independent judgment in reviewing the discipline.