McGehee v. City/Parish of East Baton Rouge

Decision Date12 September 2001
Docket NumberNo. 2000 CA 1058.,2000 CA 1058.
Citation809 So.2d 258
PartiesRobert D. McGEHEE v. CITY/PARISH OF EAST BATON ROUGE and Municipal Fire And Police Civil Service Board.
CourtCourt of Appeal of Louisiana — District of US

Kathryn Wyble, Baton Rouge, for Plaintiff/Appellant, Robert D. McGehee.

Joseph N. Lotwick, Baton Rouge, for Defendant/Appellee, Baton Rouge Police Department.

David A. Hamilton, Baton Rouge, for Defendant/Appellee, Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board.

Before: GONZALES, PETTIGREW, SEXTON, JJ.1

SEXTON, Judge.

This is an appeal by a police officer from a disciplinary action. We affirm.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Robert D. McGehee was a sergeant with the City of Baton Rouge Police Department ("BRPD") at the time of the pertinent events. On August 21, 1998, BRPD Chief Greg Phares directed an interdepartmental memorandum to Sergeant McGehee, advising him that because of his unprofessional conduct toward Corporal Pamela Anderson, which could be characterized as sexual harassment, official disciplinary action was being considered. Sergeant McGehee was notified of a pre-disciplinary hearing to be held in Chief Phares' office on September 3, 1998. On October 27, 1998, Chief Phares notified Sergeant McGehee of his decision to suspend him for three days, finding Corporal Anderson's account of the allegedly sexually offensive joke as credible, and rejecting Sergeant McGehee's innocuous version.

Plaintiff appealed his suspension to the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board ("Board"). After a hearing, the Board rendered a decision reducing plaintiffs suspension to one day. Thereafter, on August 13, 1999, plaintiff filed a suit for judicial review of the Board's decision in the district court. On March 8, 2000, the district court signed a judgment upholding the decision of the Board. From that judgment, plaintiff appeals and assigns the following errors:

1. The Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board erred in excluding certain evidence which was made the subject of a proffer by Robert D. McGehee at the hearing.

2. The Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board erred in upholding the disciplinary action taken against Robert D. McGehee by Chief Greg Phares.

3. The Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board erred in affirming the action of the appointing authority because the evidence was not conclusive and the action was not taken in good faith for cause.

4. The District Court erred in affirming the decision of the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Board.

APPELLATE JURISDICTION

It is the duty of the court to examine subject matter jurisdiction sua sponte, even when the issue is not raised by the litigants. Metro Riverboat Associates, Inc. v. Louisiana Gaming Control Board, 99-0863, p. 3 (La.App. 1st Cir.12/20/00), 774 So.2d 1193, 1197 (on rehearing), writ granted, 2001-0185 (La.6/1/01), 793 So.2d 188.

Although LSA-R.S. 33:2501(E) gives a classified employee a right to an appeal from a disciplinary action to the appropriate district court, there is no provision in the Municipal Fire and Police Civil Service Law, LSA-R.S. 33:2471 et seq., that allows a second appeal from the district court's judgment to the court of appeal2 Where there is no constitutional or statutory right to an appeal from an appellate review by the district court, only supervisory review in this court is available to the litigant. See Lightfoot v. St alder, 00-1120, p. 6 (La.App. 1st Cir.6/22/01), 808 So.2d 710,.

LSA-Const. Art. V, Section 10(A) gives an appellate court jurisdiction over all civil matters. Thus, we must determine whether the action at issue qualifies as a "civil matter" as defined by the Louisiana Supreme Court in In the Matter of American Waste, 588 So.2d 367 (La. 1991), and Moore v. Roemer, 567 So.2d 75 (La.1990). In American Waste and Moore v. Roemer, the supreme court indicated that "civil matters" are those that have been traditionally adjudicated in the district courts, such as the adjudication of disputes between private parties resulting in money judgments affecting only those parties. "Civil matters" are those where private citizens have historically had the independent right to bring suit in the district court for relief. American Waste, 588 So.2d at 372. "Civil matters" generally do not include those where the government is a party or in matters of public law. Moore v. Roemer, 567 So.2d at 81.3 (See Pope v. State, 99-2559, p. 11, n. 14 (La.6/29/01), 792 So.2d 713, 719 n. 14, wherein the Louisiana Supreme Court reserved for another day the discussion of what actions constitute matters of public law.) Nevertheless, it is well settled that a claim of deprivation of a constitutionally protected right is a traditional civil matter.

LSA-Const. Art. X, § 8 provides that, "No person who has gained permanent status in the classified state or city service shall be subjected to disciplinary action except for cause expressed in writing." This provision was cited by the court in Murray v. Department of Revenue and Taxation, 504 So.2d 561, 564 (La.App. 1st Cir.1986), writs denied, 504 So.2d 880, 882, 883 (La.1987), in holding, "this is enough to create a property right in employment with the State as it creates a definable and defensible interest in continued employment."

However, the classified city civil service established by the Louisiana Constitution extends only to those cities having a population over 400,000 or whose voters have elected to opt into the system. See LSA-Const. Art. X, § 1 and § 14. Further, firemen and policemen, in any municipality4 having a population greater than 13,-000 but fewer than 400,000 and operating a regularly paid fire and municipal police department or in any parish or fire protection district operating a regularly paid fire department, are expressly excluded from a city civil service system. LSA-Const. Art. X, § 19.5 Nonetheless, the statutory provisions applicable to fire and police civil service6 also provide for removal or disciplinary action only for certain enumerated causes. LSA-R.S. 33:2500. Therefore, the rationale of Murray v. Department of Revenue and Taxation is equally applicable to fire and police civil service, and the continued employment by those civil servants is likewise a constitutionally protected property right. This conclusion is supported by the jurisprudence.

In Faught v. City of Alexandria, 560 So.2d 671, 674 (La.App. 3rd Cir.1990), writ denied, 565 So.2d 447 (La.1990), the court, reviewing a suspension of a police officer, held that a property right is involved where an employee has been disciplined by suspension although not necessarily significant enough to require a pre-suspension hearing (post-suspension hearing held sufficient), citing the Supreme Court in Bell v. DHHR, 483 So.2d 945 (La.1986), cert. denied, 479 U.S. 827, 107 S.Ct. 105, 93 L.Ed.2d 55 (1986). The Bell court held that LSA-Const. Art. X, § 8 does not apply to a job re-assignment or reallocation, but only to a disciplinary action. The Bell court stated, "In essence, civil service employees are now only granted the right to pre-deprivation notice in writing and a hearing in disciplinary actions." 483 So.2d at 948. In Ayio v. Parish of West Baton Rouge School Board, 569 So.2d 234, 236-37 (La.App. 1st Cir.1990), this court reviewed a suspension and applied constitutional standards to conclude a property right was involved and the employee was entitled to notice and a pre-suspension opportunity to be heard. The Ayio court emphasized the severity of depriving a person of income.7 See also Greenleaf v. DHH, Metropolitan Developmental Center, 594 So.2d 418 (La.App. 1st Cir.1991), writ denied, 596 So.2d 196 (La.1992).

The present case involves the one-day suspension of a police officer from his duties. Under the jurisprudence discussed above, the suspension constitutes a property interest, albeit a de minimis one. Thus, we conclude this court has appellate jurisdiction in this matter and will consider the merits of the appeal.

DISCIPLINARY ACTION

Sergeant McGehee was suspended for violations of BRPD's Policies and Procedures Manual Disciplinary Code, Section XII, "Disciplinary Articles," subsections 0:0, 2:10, 3:14, and 3:23,8 as well as, BRPD General Order Number 140, "Harassment,"9 and LSA-R.S. 33:2500(A)(1), (3) and (5)10

Any regular employee in the classified service who feels that he has been discharged or subjected to any corrective or disciplinary action without just cause, may, within fifteen days after the action, demand, in writing, a hearing and investigation by the Board to determine the reasonableness of the action. LSA-R.S. 33:2501(A). The Board may, if the evidence is conclusive, affirm the action of the appointing authority. If it finds that the action was not taken in good faith for cause, the Board shall order the immediate reinstatement or reemployment of such person in the office, place, position, or employment from which he was removed, suspended, demoted, or discharged, which reinstatement shall, if the Board so provides, be retroactive and entitle him to his regular pay from the time of removal, suspension, demotion, discharge, or other disciplinary action. The Board may modify the order of removal, suspension, demotion, discharge, or other disciplinary action by directing a suspension without pay, for a given period. LSA-R.S. 33:2501(C)(1). The appointing authority must prove its case by a preponderance of the evidence. Shields v. City of Shreveport, 579 So.2d 961, 964 (La.1991); Jordan v. City of Baton Rouge, 93-2125, p. 4 (La.App. 1st Cir.3/10/95), 652 So.2d 701, 704.

Any employee under classified service and any appointing authority may appeal from any decision of the Board, or from any action taken by the Board that is prejudicial to the employee or appointing authority, directly to the district court. The district court shall hear the matter in a summary manner and the hearing shall be confined to the determination of whether the...

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