California Supreme Court Holds ‘Notice Of Proposed Disciplinary Action’ Does Not Mean ‘Notice Of Proposed Punishment’

A section of California’s Peace Officer Bill of Rights specifies that “no punitive action” may be imposed upon any public safety officer for alleged misconduct unless the public agency investigating the allegations “completes its investigation and notifies the officer of its proposed disciplinary action” within one year.

Sergeant John Mays works for the Los Angeles Police Department. Mays received a notice from LAPD that he faced potential disciplinary action, and that “the matter would be adjudicated by a Board of Rights.” An LAPD “Board of Rights” is an administrative tribunal responsible for the adjudication of charges of police officer misconduct. At the conclusion of a Board of Rights hearing, the Board is required to make a finding of “guilty” or “not guilty” on each charge and to prescribe, for any positive finding of misconduct, a penalty from a specified range of disciplinary options. The Chief of Police has the discretion to accept or reduce, but not to increase, any punishment recommended by the Board of Rights.

When Mays eventually received a written reprimand after the conclusion of the disciplinary process, he filed a court challenge alleging that the notice he received did not satisfy the provision in the Bill of Rights because no specific penalty was mentioned. That left it to the California Supreme Court to resolve whether the Bill of Rights requires a notice of the specific penalty being proposed by the employer.

The Court found that an employer could satisfy the notice requirement without specifically listing the proposed disciplinary sanction: “Viewing the terms of the Bill of Rights as a whole, it appears clear that the fundamental purpose of this provision is to place a one-year limitation on investigations of officer misconduct. Once the public agency decides that discipline may be warranted, it must so inform the officer. In this context, it seems most reasonable to interpret the language ‘proposed disciplinary action’ as referring to the agency’s determination that discipline may be taken. This interpretation is consistent with the apparent purpose of the law, which is to ensure that an officer will not be faced with the uncertainty of a lingering investigation, but will know within one year of the agency’s discovery of the officer’s act or omission that it may be necessary for the officer to respond in the event he or she wishes to defend its possible discipline.”

In the eyes of the Court, the requirement that the employer would have to specify the particular penalty would be “unreasonable.” The Court commented that “it would be anomalous to require the public agency to reach a conclusion regarding potential discipline prior to any pre-disciplinary proceedings or response on the part of the officer. Such a requirement also could have the practical effect of always leading the public agency to propose the maximum punishment in order to ensure it retain the full range of options in the subsequent disciplinary proceedings.”

Mays v. City of Los Angeles, 2008 WL 1745210 (Cal. 2008).

This article appears in the June 2008 issue