Wyatt v. Kern High Sch.

Decision Date11 July 2022
Docket NumberF081049
Citation296 Cal.Rptr.3d 476
Parties Jerald WYATT, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. KERN HIGH SCHOOL, Defendant and Appellant.
CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals Court of Appeals

Lozano Smith, Sloan R. Simmons, Jenell Van Bindsbergen, and Junaid Halani for Defendant and Appellant.

Swanson O'Dell and Seth O'Dell ; Carpenter Zuckerman & Rowley and Robert J. Ounjian ; Rodriguez & Associates, Daniel Rodriguez, and Chantal Trujillo for Plaintiff and Respondent.

POOCHIGIAN, J.

INTRODUCTION

At issue in this matter is whether certain records maintained by appellant Kern High School District (KHSD) and pertaining to respondent Jerald Wyatt, a police officer formerly employed by KHSD, are subject to disclosure in response to requests made in 2019, pursuant to the California Public Records Act ( Gov. Code, § 6250 et seq. ) (CPRA).

KHSD maintains a police department. In early 2019, KHSD received several CPRA record requests from various news agencies and others seeking information concerning KHSD officer involved events including records pertaining to (1) the discharge of a firearm at a person by an officer; (2) the use of force by an officer resulting in death or great bodily injury; (3) sustained findings an officer engaged in sexual assault involving a member of the public; and (4) sustained findings of dishonesty-related misconduct by an officer. Upon receipt of the CPRA requests, KHSD notified Wyatt that it had identified "documents from [Wyatt's] personnel file responsive to these requests" (subject records).1

Prior to January 1, 2019, access to such records was only permitted through a Pitchess2 motion brought pursuant to Evidence Code sections 1043 and 1045. With the passage of Senate Bill No. 1421 (2017–2018 Reg. Sess.) in 2018 ("2018 amendments"), Penal Code sections 832.7 and 832.8 were amended to allow disclosure of such records pursuant to a CPRA request under specified circumstances. (Former Pen. Code, § 832.7, subd. (b)(1), Stats. 2018, c. 988, § 2) (Senate Bill 1421).3

Wyatt petitioned the Kern County Superior Court for a writ of mandate, temporary restraining order, and preliminary injunction seeking to enjoin KHSD from disclosing the subject records in response to the CPRA requests. Wyatt argued, among other things, the subject records did not relate to "sustained" findings as defined in subdivision (b) of Penal Code section 832.8, because Wyatt was never notified of the findings or afforded an "opportunity for an administrative appeal pursuant to Sections 3304 and 3304.5 of the Government Code."

The trial court granted Wyatt's petition, ordered the issuance of a writ of mandate, and issued an injunction prohibiting disclosure of the subject records.

KHSD appeals from the order granting the writ of mandate and injunction and denying KHSD's motion for reconsideration, and from the judgment entered pursuant to said order. We affirm, in part, and reverse, in part.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

Wyatt was previously employed by KHSD as a peace officer in the KHSD police department. While Wyatt was employed by KHSD, an internal affairs (IA) investigation was opened into certain allegations involving Wyatt.

By the time the IA investigation was completed on June 30, 2017, however, KHSD no longer considered Wyatt an active KHSD employee due to certain statutory elections made by Wyatt. The true status of Wyatt's employment with KHSD at or about the time of the IA investigation appears to be in dispute and the subject of separate litigation.4

In November of 2017, Wyatt requested he be permitted to review his KHSD personnel records. He made the request because he had "been offered a position with the Kern County [District Attorney's] Office as an Investigator," and it was about to conduct a background investigation of Wyatt. Wyatt suspected "KHSD may have placed erroneous [IA] or disciplinary information in [his] file in an attempt to dissuade any Law Enforcement agencies from hiring [him]." Wyatt's request was granted.

Upon conducting a review of his personnel records, Wyatt "observed some interesting notations ... made on some of the documents, indicating ‘Per Tenile.’ "5 Wyatt requested documents related to the notations and "located an envelope which was labeled as an IA investigation." Among the documents contained in the envelope was an "IA findings document ... that listed two sustained IA allegations ... for ‘Misuse of [CLETS][6 ] and ‘Dishonesty.’ " Wyatt contends he was "never ... informed nor notified of any [such] findings."

Within days of Wyatt's review of his files, a Kern County District Attorney Investigator (D.A. Investigator) reviewed Wyatt's personnel files as part of the D.A. Investigator's background investigation into Wyatt. As noted in his publicly filed declaration, the D.A. Investigator "specifically sought information from [Wyatt's personnel] file that would relate to dishonesty or any Sustained [IA] findings and [he] found none to be contained within [Wyatt's] file."

Seventeen months later, on April 25, 2019, KHSD notified Wyatt by letter that it had received "multiple [CPRA requests] related to the investigation and discipline of peace officers employed by" the KHSD police department "pursuant to [Senate Bill] 1421." The letter stated, "[KHSD] has reviewed its files and has located documents from [Wyatt's] personnel file responsive to these requests" (i.e., the subject records). The letter indicated that, unless Wyatt provided KHSD "with a copy of an appropriate court-issued protective order precluding" production of the subject records, KHSD intended to produce them in response to the CPRA requests.

On May 14, 2019, Wyatt filed an ex parte application for a writ of mandamus, temporary restraining order (TRO), and order to show cause for a preliminary injunction to enjoin KHSD's release of the subject records (a "reverse-CPRA action"7 ) and for related relief. On or about May 28, 2019, Wyatt amended his petition. The relief sought by Wyatt in his amended petition was for a TRO, preliminary injunction, and permanent injunction "enjoining [KHSD] from releasing the [subject] records ... in response" to the CPRA requests; for alternative and peremptory writs of mandate so enjoining KHSD; for alternative and peremptory writs of mandate "commanding [KHSD] to remove any documents from [Wyatt's] file ... not placed there in accordance with [Government] Code [section] 3300 et seq. and after a determination from an adjudicated hearing[;]" and for a hearing "pursuant to [Government] Code Section 3309.5[8 ] so that a factual determination may be made ... regarding the actual nature of the documents in question and their appropriate legal classification pursuant to ... Penal Code Section 832.8(b)."

On May 30, 2019, the trial court granted a TRO prohibiting KHSD from releasing the subject records under the CPRA, issued an alternative writ of mandate, and set a hearing date and briefing schedule for the parties. A formal order to that effect was filed on June 24, 2019.

The hearing on Wyatt's writ petition went forward on August 2, 2019. A minute order of that same date noted the matter was "heard and argued by counsel," "[KHSD] personnel records for ... Wyatt [were] submitted to the Court for in camera review," and the "[m]atter stands submitted to the Court."

On August 23, 2019, the trial court granted Wyatt's petition. The ruling stated, "[KHSD] and its agents are enjoined and restrained from disclosing the subject records in response to requests under the [CPRA]. A writ of mandate will issue commanding [KHSD] to: (1) refrain from treating the subject records as ‘relating to an incident in which a sustained finding was made,’ and (2) respond to persons making CPRA requests consistent with this decision." The court directed Wyatt to "prepare a proposed order, injunction and writ," ruled on [KHSD's] objections to the declarations submitted in support of Wyatt's petition, and noted the court had "reviewed in camera a total of 77 pages" of subject records. (Italics omitted.)

In its August 23, 2019, ruling, the trial court found, among other things, that (1) Wyatt "is a peace officer formerly employed by respondent KHSD," (2) during the period February 5, 2019, to May 1, 2019, KHSD received CPRA requests from several parties seeking "records subject to disclosure under Penal Code [section] 832.7(b)," (3) "KHSD identified records pertaining to [Wyatt] that it deemed responsive to the requests ..., and notified [Wyatt] of its intent to disclose them," (4) Wyatt "had no opportunity for an administrative appeal," and (5) Wyatt had notice of the IA investigation and " ‘ultimately became aware that a determination had been made’ " [as a result of his November 2017 review of his personnel files]. These findings do not appear to be in dispute.

The trial court determined KHSD was "not relieve[d] ... of its obligation to give proper notice of a ‘final determination’ [to Wyatt] if one had been made." The court stated, "Placing a ‘memo to file’ among other records – there one moment [Nov. 28], and gone the next [Nov. 30] – was not sufficient" to provide such notice.9 The court ruled "[t]he subject records relate to an incident for which there was no ‘sustained finding’ within the meaning of Penal Code [section] 832.7 [subdivision] (b), and are therefore confidential and exempt from disclosure under state law," citing Government Code section 6254, subdivision (k)10 and Penal Code section 832.7, subdivision (a).11

On September 9, 2019, KHSD moved the trial court to reconsider its ruling. In its motion, KHSD argued that, in connection with the prior hearing of Wyatt's petition, KHSD was prohibited from disclosing, in open court, certain material facts related to Wyatt's employment and the IA investigation without violating Wyatt's privacy interests. KHSD requested that the court "enter a new order allowing for a closed hearing for consideration of the necessary facts, or allow [KHSD] to submit additional facts under...

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