Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Court Upholds Officer's Right to Administrative Appeal of Termination

In 2008, a citizen filed a complaint against San Francisco police officer Morgado. The office of citizen complaints investigated and recommended the Chief impose discipline. The Chief agreed and submitted a complaint against the officer to the City’s police commission. After a full evidentiary hearing which the officer participated in, the Commission decided to impose termination. The officer sued the City in Morgado v. City and County of San Francisco alleging that the City violated the Public Safety Officers’ Procedural Bill of Rights Act (“POBR”) by failing to give him an administrative appeal of the final termination. The trial court agreed with the officer and issued an injunction vacating the termination until he had been provided the opportunity for an administrative appeal of the termination decision. The City appealed.

On appeal, the City argued that the evidentiary hearing at the Commission level effectively served as an administrative appeal of the Chief’s decision to discipline. By providing this evidentiary hearing, the City argued it fulfilled the purposes of the administrative appeal provision of POBR. The Court found a distinction between the Chief’s decision to recommend discipline and the termination actually imposed by the commission. The Court found that while there may be a right for an administrative appeal of an interim-step towards discipline, such as the Chief’s recommendation, ultimately this was not the relevant issue in this case.

The issue here was the ability to appeal the “final” imposition of discipline by the Commission. While the Commission’s evidentiary hearing fulfilled most of the purposes of an administrative appeal, the Commission’s processes ended when it made the final determination to impose discipline. The Court ruled the City should have provided an additional opportunity for independent re-examination of the imposition of termination. The Court stated that such an administrative appeal does not require the same full-scale evidentiary hearing, but merely the re-examination by someone not involved in the initial determination who will make written factual findings.

The City argued alternatively that the administrative appeal provision of POBR was unconstitutional because it restricted the constitutionally granted “plenary authority” of the City over the removal of its officers. The Court found no constitutional conflict, noting POBR constituted only a slight impingement. POBR did not proscribe reasons an officer could be terminated, rather it sets forth minimal procedural rights. The court upheld the Constitutionality of  POBR finding it was narrowly tailored to the purpose of promoting labor relations and created no substantive restrictions on the City’s ability to terminate employees. The Court of Appeal upheld the injunction and affirmed the trial court’s decision.