Tuesday, December 2, 2014

California Supreme Court: Arbitrators May Rule On Pitchess Motions

On December 1, 2014, the California Supreme Court held arbitrators may rule on Pitchess motions during peace officer administrative appeals. The court's decision in Riverside County Sheriff's Department v. Stiglitz ensures peace officers can get information to defend discipline cases.

In Stiglitz, the Riverside County Sheriff's Department terminated a deputy for allegations of falsifying payroll forms. The deputy appealed the discipline to arbitration. The deputy intended to assert a disparate treatment defense, arguing others had committed similar misconduct but were not fired. To prove this defense, the deputy sought redacted records "from personnel investigations of any Department employees who have been disciplined for similar acts of misconduct." She limited her request to events during the previous five years, and only sought incident summaries, the rank of the officer, and the discipline imposed. The department objected, arguing in part that the requested information was confidential and the arbitrator lacked authority to rule on Pitchess motions.

The court held arbitrators have the authority to grant Pitchess motions. Evidence Code section 1043 states the motion should be filed in the appropriate court "or administrative body." The court held this language specifically grants arbitrators the authority to rule on the Pitchess motions because otherwise, the Legislature would have authorized filing a motion in a body not authorized to rule on it. The court also noted the Legislature did not provide a mechanism to transfer a motion from an administrative proceeding to superior court. The absence of such a mechanism showed the Legislature's intent for arbitrators to make such rulings.

The court also held its conclusion is consistent with the purposes behind the Pitchess statutes and the Public Safety Officer Procedural Bill of Rights Act ("POBRA"). The Pitchess statutes reflect the Legislature's attempt to balance a litigant's discovery interest with an officer's confidentiality interest. These interests must be balanced whether the motion is filed before a court or an administrative hearing officer. Also, POBRA grants officers the right to administratively appeal an adverse employment decision and give the officer an opportunity to convince the agency to reverse its decision. Allowing discovery of relevant information to an officer's defense during the administrative hearing furthers these goals.