Tuesday, August 25, 2015

California Supreme Court Finds Limited Exception to Employees' Access to Supervisor Notes Under FFBOR

On August 24, 2015, the California Supreme Court issued a decision in Poole v. Orange County Fire Authority. The Court held Government Code section 3255 did not compel the County to provide a firefighter the opportunity to review and respond to a supervisor's personal notes regarding the firefighters work performance if the notes were not used for a personnel purpose. The supervisor did not share the notes or make them available to anyone with authority to take adverse disciplinary action against the firefighter. For these reasons, the Court held the supervisor's notes did not constitute a file "used for any personnel purposes by his or her employer."

Under the Firefighters Procedural Bill of Rights Act ("FFBOR"), a firefighter has the right to review and respond to any negative comment that is "entered in his or her personnel file, or any other file used for any personnel purpose." In Poole, a supervisor maintained raw notes on his subordinates. The notes documented factual occurrences for his reference when writing employees' annual reviews. Some of the occurrences in the supervisor's notes described instances where the employees had failed to complete assigned duties. The supervisor did not make these notes available to anyone with authority to take adverse action against the firefighter and not all of the notes were documented in annual performance reviews. The Court considered the narrow question of whether the FFBOR required the supervisor to provide employees the opportunity to review and respond to negative comments in his notes that were not included in the employees' annual performance evaluations or performance improvement plans.

It is well established that employers must provide firefighters and public safety officers an opportunity to review and respond to negative comments entered into files used for personnel purposes. For example, in Venegas the appellate court concluded that an index card maintained by internal affairs documenting all complaints against an officer constituted a file "used for... personnel purposes," because it would be available to those responsible for disciplinary action. In addition, in County of Riverside, the county was required to disclose to a police officer adverse comments in a file containing the results of a background investigation the county used to determine whether to continue to employ the officer. And in Aguilar, the appellate court held an officer was entitled to review and respond to an uninvestigated citizen's complaint placed in a confidential investigative file. These cases remain authoritative in compelling employers to provide firefighters and public safety officers the opportunity to review and respond to adverse comments placed in files "used for... personnel purposes."

The Court distinguished this case from other cases interpreting similar statutes on the basis that the supervisor's notes were not available to anyone making personnel decisions in the future. Based on a unique set of circumstances, this case clarified FFBOR protections are not triggered by a supervisor's private notes that were not used for any personnel action.