Cnty. of Santa Cruz v. Santa Cruz Cnty. Civil Serv. Comm'n

Decision Date05 May 2023
Docket NumberH049856
PartiesCOUNTY OF SANTA CRUZ et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. SANTA CRUZ COUNTY CIVIL SERVICE COMMISSION et al., Defendants; KELLY KENT, Real Party in Interest and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals


Santa Cruz County Super. Ct. No. 21CV00287


While working as a lieutenant for the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Office (Sheriff), appellant Kelly Kent failed to act on information regarding a correctional officer's sexual misconduct against an inmate at the Santa Cruz County Jail. The Sheriff demoted Kent from lieutenant to sergeant Kent appealed the demotion to the Santa Cruz County Civil Service Commission (Commission). The Commission held a hearing and decided that the demotion was excessive reinstated Kent as a lieutenant, and suspended him for three days. The County of Santa Cruz (County) and the Sheriff jointly challenged the Commission's decision by filing a petition for writ of administrative mandate in the trial court.[1] The trial court found the Commission had abused its discretion and ordered it to set aside its decision, issue a new decision "consistent with the evidence," and "focus on the evidence . that is consistent with demotion."

On appeal, Kent contends the trial court failed to apply the correct legal standards in its review of the Commission's decision. Kent maintains that the Commission's decision was reasonable and supported by substantial evidence, and the trial court improperly ordered the Commission to impose a specific penalty on reconsideration.[2]The County counters that the trial court's decision should be affirmed because the Commission's decision involved an abuse of discretion.

For the reasons explained below, we agree with Kent that the trial court erred in its directions to the Commission to focus on the evidence consistent with demotion. We will therefore reverse the trial court's decision. Nevertheless, we agree with the County that the Commission committed a prejudicial abuse of discretion in rendering its original decision. Consequently, we remand the matter to the trial court with directions to enter a new judgment granting the County's writ petition and directing the Commission to set aside its original decision and conduct further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

A. Factual Background Regarding Kent's Demotion

Kent began working for the Sheriff as a detention officer in 1991. After a few years, he became a deputy sheriff. Eventually, the Sheriff promoted Kent to sergeant and then lieutenant. By the summer of 2017, Kent had been working at the jail for about a year and a half and was the jail's commander. The Sheriff had not previously disciplined Kent for his job performance.

In July 2017, an inmate (Jane Doe 2) asked to speak to Correctional Officer J.B. and reported an incident involving a cellmate (Jane Doe 1) that implicated the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA).[4] The allegation concerned impermissible sexual conduct of another named correctional officer against Jane Doe 1. A few minutes after receiving the report, J.B. went to Kent's office. Kent "was on his computer" at the time.

According to a Sheriff's investigative report, when J.B. was interviewed in April 2018 about her July 2017 interaction with Kent, she said that "she immediately reported [the sexual misconduct] allegation to Lieutenant Kent that same day.... [S]he did not give Lieutenant Kent specific details but did report sexual contact between [the named correctional officer] and [Jane Doe 1]. This meeting lasted approximately ten minutes and no one else was present.... Kent directed [J.B.] to write him an email to him about this allegation."

Later, at the Commission's hearing in September 2018, J.B. described her July 2017 interaction with Kent as follows: "I think I told him something about, I'm sorry, but that I needed to talk to him. [¶] . . . [¶] I told him that Jane Doe 2 had requested to speak to me and that I took her up to booking. And that when we were in booking, she had made the allegations that I -- after I wrote in my e-mail. And that I wasn't really sure -- that I had talked to her before, but I wasn't really sure how to present -- how to take the information and that's why I was going to him." J.B. testified further that "[a]t some point in the conversation [Kent] turned around and looked at [her] and he acknowledged that he heard [her]." Kent then asked J.B. to write a memo about the situation prior to the end of her shift and send it to him. Kent also mentioned to J.B. that the "conversation was between us, obviously because of the sensitivity of the matter, [and] that he didn't want [J.B.] to go tell anybody else about it."

On cross-examination at the hearing, J.B. said the following: "I didn't give [Kent] specific details maybe when I spoke with him directly, but it was in my e-mail." J.B. also said, "I don't recall a hundred percent exactly what I said that day. It was over a year ago. I do recall that the e-mail was the specific details. So I don't recall exactly what I told him."[5]

After speaking with Kent on that day in July 2017, J.B. went to her office and began drafting two separate memos. The first was a "smuggle alert" memo (based on some information Jane Doe 2 had provided about a drug smuggling plot) and the second described the PREA violation allegation. J.B. e-mailed the smuggle alert memo to Kent first, at 4:44 p.m. on July 17, 2017, followed by the memo about the PREA violation allegation at 5:42 p.m. The first e-mail had the word "smuggle" in its subject line and, in its body, asked Kent if he could "[p]lease review [the] alert and advice [sic] if clear to send out." The attached smuggle alert memo identified three people who might try to bring drugs into the jail. The second e-mail J.B. sent to Kent stated in its subject line, "Memo you requested," and, in its body, "Attached is the memo you requested. [¶] Sorry [unhappy-face emoji]" followed by J.B.'s name. The attachment bore the file name "confidential.docx."

J.B.'s one and one-half page memo regarding the PREA violation allegation reiterated that she had drafted it "per Lt. Kent's request." The memo first described how J.B. had received the information about a drug smuggling plot involving Jane Doe 1 and Jane Doe 2. The memo then relayed Jane Doe 2's report that two days earlier, Jane Doe 2 had witnessed the named correctional officer" 'fingering'" Jane Doe 1 and "messing around with his 'zipper.'" Near the end of her memo, J.B. wrote, "Due to the nature of the topic, I reported this immediately to Lt. Kent and I will not speak about it to anyone else."

The next day, at 12:27 p.m., Kent responded to J.B.'s first e-mail by e-mailing her and asking if she could provide additional information regarding the drug smuggling plot. Kent, however, never discussed J.B.'s second e-mail or the memo describing the potential PREA violation with her. J.B. assumed Kent had acted on the information she provided.

Later, in December 2017, J.B. told a sergeant about the July 2017 sexual misconduct allegation that J.B. had described five months earlier in the PREA memo to Kent. J.B. and the sergeant then informed a lieutenant. The Sheriff opened a criminal investigation.

During that investigation, J.B. told a detective that she may have previously reported the allegation to Kent or her immediate supervisor, "however she wasn't sure at [the] time of the interview with [the detective]." When an investigator later asked Kent and J.B.'s supervisor about J.B.'s possible report, both Kent and the supervisor "denied having received such a report."

On January 9, 2018, Kent received his employee performance evaluation from a chief deputy for the period January 12, 2017, to January 12, 2018. The chief deputy rated Kent's overall performance as "[e]xceeds job standards" and rated Kent as needing improvement only in the area of "[o]rganizational skills." The latter rating generally resulted from Kent's failure to perform certain tasks on schedule. The evaluation also noted, inter alia, that Kent "takes on a large amount of work - both through his own initiative on special projects or when he recognizes deficiencies in the corrections system. . . . During the rating period, [Kent] took on the most work over that of his peer group."

In addition to conducting a criminal investigation, the Sheriff opened an administrative (internal affairs) investigation into J.B.'s and Kent's apparent failure to report and investigate the sexual misconduct allegation when J.B. had first learned of it in July 2017. On March 22, 2018, J.B.'s attorney told an investigator that J.B. had sent an e-mail to Kent about the allegation on July 17, 2017.

During an administrative interview conducted by a Sheriff's lieutenant in April 2018, Kent said that he had not previously seen J.B.'s second July 17, 2017 e-mail.[6]Kent also said that he did not recall having a conversation with J.B. and that if J.B. had informed him of a sexual misconduct allegation involving an officer, he "would have taken 'immediate action.'" Kent explained that July 17, 2017, was his first day back from a 20-day vacation, he "returned to over 500 work related emails to catch up on," and he "just didn't see" J.B.'s e-mail. Kent stated further that J.B." 'comes in all the time to talk about all kinds of things'" and their many conversations" 'almost blend together.' "

Kent was adamant that he would have remembered and immediately acted on any report of sexual misconduct involving a correctional officer. Kent also acknowledged that he did not respond to J.B.'s 5:42 p.m. e-mail-although he had received an e-mail from another colleague (a chief deputy),...

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