Court Reinstates Sergeant’s Demotion

A clear example of a difference between appealing discipline through a civil service system and appealing discipline through arbitration can be found in a recent case involving Santa Cruz County, California. When discipline is appealed through arbitration, court review is extremely limited, and typically focusing only on whether the arbitrator exceeded his or her jurisdiction in issuing an opinion. It is extremely rare for an arbitrator’s disciplinary opinion to be overturned.

The decisions of civil service boards and commissions, however, are more easily reviewable. In California, the standard for review of a civil service decision is whether the decision constituted an abuse of discretion.

The Santa Cruz case involved a sergeant, George Jack, who was demoted as a result of an investigation into whether he had sexually harassed a subordinate. The Civil Service Commission found that Jack made false statements and was insubordinate, but reversed his demotion and instead imposed a 30-day suspension. The County challenged the Commission’s decision in the California Court of Appeals.

The Court concluded that the Commission’s decision constituted an abuse of discretion, and reinstated the demotion. The Court found that “Jack created a hostile work environment for a female subordinate. When she complained about Jack’s treatment, and an investigation was initiated, Jack disobeyed a direct order not to contact her. When Jack did contact her, he further intimidated her, told her not to tell anyone about the meeting, and then lied to his supervisor about it.

“Jack’s dishonesty and disobedience of the order not to contact the employee are serious and important. The honesty and integrity of a sergeant in the Sheriff’s Department is paramount to the public safety and trust, and breach of that trust is cause for grave concern. The fact that the dishonesty in this case related to an internal employment investigation does not make the misconduct any less troubling. In cases such as this, where the Commission made specific findings that are inconsistent with its action in reducing the penalty, our review extends to a de novo comparison of the findings and the penalty such that if the two were inherently inconsistent, it is not possible that one could follow from the other, then error is shown. Here, the Commission’s findings do not support its action. We find no reasonable mind could conclude, based on these findings, a reduction of Jack’s penalty was warranted.”

County of Santa Cruz v. Civil Service Commission of Santa Cruz, 2009 WL 323234 (Cal.App. 2009).

This article appears in the April 2009 issue