Riverside Sheriffs' Ass'n v. Cnty. of Riverside

Decision Date08 February 2011
Docket NumberNo. E050596.,E050596.
Citation122 Cal.Rptr.3d 197,11 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 2670,2011 Daily Journal D.A.R. 3115,193 Cal.App.4th 20
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals
PartiesRIVERSIDE SHERIFFS' ASSOCIATION et al., Plaintiffs and Respondents, v. COUNTY OF RIVERSIDE, Defendant and Appellant.

OPINION TEXT STARTS HERE

See Annot., Validity, construction, and application of probationary provisions of civil service statutes or regulations (1941) 131 A.L.R. 383;Cal. Jur. 3d, Law Enforcement, § 105; 8 Witkin, Summary of Cal. Law (10th ed. 2005) Constitutional Law, § 960.

The Zappia Law Firm, Edward P. Zappia and Brett M. Ehman for Defendant and Appellant.

Hayes & Cunningham and Dennis J. Hayes for Plaintiffs and Respondents.

OPINION

KING, J.

I. INTRODUCTION

Plaintiff Beatrice Sanchez was employed by the County of Riverside (the County) probation department as a probation corrections officer II. The County terminated her employment because it determined she had a medical condition that prevented her from performing the essential functions of her position, with or without reasonable accommodation. The County then denied her request for an administrative appeal of her termination pursuant to the memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the County and the Riverside Sheriffs' Association (RSA) law enforcement unit on the ground she was terminated, not for “disciplinary reasons” (MOU, art. XII), but based solely on her medical condition. The County later rescinded Sanchez's termination and applied to the California Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) for disability retirement benefits on her behalf (Gov.Code, § 21153),1 retroactive to October 25, 2008, the first day Sanchez was on “unpaid status” with the County. Sanchez notified the County she intended to appeal her disability retirement. (§ 21156.)

Sanchez also petitioned the trial court for a writ of mandate directing the County to process her request for an MOU appeal of her termination. The County opposed the petition on the grounds it had rescinded Sanchez's termination and her “exclusive remedy” was to appeal her disability retirement. The trial court granted the petition on the ground Sanchez was denied wages and benefits of her employment, notwithstanding the rescission of her termination. The County appeals, claiming the petition was erroneously granted because Sanchez's termination had been rescinded and her “exclusive remedy” was to appeal her disability retirement.

We affirm. Even though the County purported to rescind its termination of Sanchez's employment and applied to CalPERS for disability retirement benefits on her behalf, substantial evidence showed the County denied Sanchez wages and other benefits of her employment from and after October 25, 2008. This, apparently, was inconsistent with treating Sanchez as a nonterminated County employee who was eligible for disability retirement benefits from and after October 25, 2008. Sanchez was entitled to an MOU hearing, not of her termination per se, but of the County's “disciplinary actions” denying her wages and benefits from and after October 25, 2008.

II. FACTS AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

In 2007, Sanchez was employed by the County probation department as a probation corrections officer II and, by virtue of her employment, was a member of the public safety unit of the RSA. In December 2007, Sanchez's supervisor informed her she would be required to work the “graveyard shift” as part of the regular rotation of probation corrections officers. Thereafter, Sanchez gave her supervisor a letter from her physician, Dr. Stephen Steele. The letter stated Sanchez had lupus, a chronic autoimmune disease, and restricted her from (1) working more than eight hours each day, (2) lifting more than 15 pounds, (3) standing for prolonged periods, and (4) working the graveyard shift.

After December 2007, the County initiated an interactive process in order to determine whether Sanchez's medical condition could be reasonably accommodated. Sanchez advised the County she was not interested in any of the positions suggested to her during the interactive process. At some point, the County determined Sanchez could not perform the essential functions of her position, with or without reasonable accommodation. Thereafter, in October 2008, Sanchez was taken off duty from her position as a probation corrections officer. Then, on April 6, 2009, the County notified Sanchez of its intention to terminate her employment in a letter captioned “Notice of Intent to Release from Employment.”

The April 6 letter advised Sanchez that the County had determined she could not perform the essential functions of her position, with or without reasonable accommodation, and that the County “recognize[d] she was no longer able to work for the County “only because of” her “present medical condition.” The April 6 letter also stated that Sanchez's termination from her employment was “not being proposed for disciplinary reasons,” and, therefore, “the provisions of Articles XI and XII of the MOU did not apply.2 The April 6 letter gave Sanchez an opportunity, until April 16, to respond orally or in writing to the County's proposed termination of her employment, and stated that a final decision on her termination would be made after April 16. Finally, the April 6 letter advised Sanchez that if she planned to “file for disability or service retirement” she could contact the County or CalPERS “for assistance or information.”

On April 23, the County notified Sanchez by letter that her employment was terminated effective April 23. The April 23 letter emphasized that Sanchez had “engaged in no culpable behavior” and “only [her] medical condition” prevented her from resuming her “full duties” with the probation department. The April 23 letter also acknowledged the County's receipt of an April 8 letter from Sanchez's counsel, but disagreed with her counsel's assertion that her medical restrictions could be reasonably accommodated or that she was entitled to appeal her termination pursuant to the MOU. On April 24, Sanchez demanded reinstatement to her former position and again requested that the County process an MOU appeal of her termination.

On May 19, 2009, the County “rescinded” its April 23 termination of Sanchez's employment and, on this appeal, claims it never “processed” her termination. The County submits its rescission of Sanchez's termination was prompted by this court's May 18, 2009, decision in Riverside Sheriffs' Assn. v. County of Riverside (2009) 173 Cal.App.4th 1410, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832 [Fourth Dist., Div. Two] (RSA–Fauth ) and, in accordance with RSA–Fauth, Sanchez is not entitled to an MOU appeal of her rescinded termination.

In RSA–Fauth, Leisha Fauth, a senior investigator with the office of the district attorney, was terminated “for cause” after the County determined she was no longer psychologically fit to carry a gun or perform her investigator duties. ( RSA–Fauth, supra, 173 Cal.App.4th at pp. 1414–1416, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832.) Fauth filed a notice of appeal with the County, challenging her termination pursuant to article XII of the MOU and demanding reinstatement. ( Id. at pp. 1416–1417, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832.) The County rejected Fauth's request for an MOU appeal of her termination on the ground she was not terminated for a disciplinary reason but because she could no longer meet the requirements of her position. ( Ibid.) Then, several months after Fauth was terminated, the County applied to CalPERS to place Fauth on disability retirement, claiming she had a psychiatric disability and was therefore mentally or physically incapacitated within the meaning of the CalPERS law. ( Id. at p. 1417, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832; § 20000 et seq.) Thus, the County's reasons for terminating Fauth's employment were essentially the same as its reasons for placing her on involuntary disability retirement.

We concluded in RSA–Fauth that, though Fauth was indisputably entitled to appeal her involuntary disability retirement under the CalPERS law, this did not bar her right to an MOU appeal of her termination. ( RSA–Fauth, supra, 173 Cal.App.4th at p. 1419, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832.) We explained that [t]ermination for cause and involuntary disability retirement are two distinct, incompatible means of removing an employee from a job,” and “must be appealed in two entirely different forums, with the procedures under the MOU being contractual and the procedures for disability retirement being statutory. The two means of removal cannot coexist because once an employee is terminated for cause, the employment relationship is severed and [disability] retirement benefits are no longer possible.” ( Ibid.) We further explained that the County had “improperly, simultaneously taken two incompatible employment actions,” against Fauth, subjecting her to both involuntary disability retirement and termination for cause. Even if Fauth successfully appealed the County's application for her disability retirement, she would still be terminated for cause. ( Id. at pp. 1420–1421, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832.)

In addition, the County cited no authority for the proposition it was advancing in RSA–Fauth, namely, that “when the county both terminates an employee for cause and applies for involuntary disability retirement, the disability retirement nullifies the termination for cause, when an appeal of the disability retirement remains possible or is pending.” ( RSA–Fauth, supra, 173 Cal.App.4th at p. 1421, 93 Cal.Rptr.3d 832.) We therefore concluded that, until the involuntary disability retirement becomes final, with no possibility of being set aside, Fauth's termination for cause remains in effect, unless expressly withdrawn, and Fauth is entitled to an MOU appeal hearing. ( Ibid., italics added.)

As indicated, the County rescinded its April 23 termination of Sanchez on May 19, one day after RSA–Fauth was decided. Then, on July 7, 2009, the County submitted a disability retirement application to CalPERS on...

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