No Right To Hearing Prior To Removal As Paramedic

The memorandum of understanding (California’s equivalent to a collective bargaining agreement) between the San Diego Firefighters and the City of San Diego calls for premium pay for paramedics. The language in the MOU is that the premium is only paid to individuals “certified as paramedics.” There has been a longstanding agreement that the phrase “certified as paramedic” means “certified by the EMS medical director to operate as a paramedic within San Diego’s EMS system.”

Steve Choi began work as a firefighter for the City of San Diego in 1990. In 1998, he was assigned as a paramedic after receiving a state paramedic’s license. In 2004, the EMS medical director recommended that Choi “not be allowed to function as a paramedic” for the City because of concerns he had over several incidents that led him to believe Choi was performing at unsatisfactory levels. When the Department notified Choi of the medical director’s decision and the fact that he would lose paramedic premium pay, he sued the City, contending that the City’s decision to remove him as a paramedic without giving him an opportunity for a hearing violated principles of due process.

The California Court of Appeals disagreed with Choi. The Court found that for due process to be required, the City’s decision would have to implicate a property right held by Choi. Borrowing from the decision of the Supreme Court, the Court noted that a property interest only exists “if there are such rules or mutually explicit understandings that support a claim of entitlement to the benefit.”

The Court found that there were no such rules or understandings giving Choi the right to a paramedic position in the absence of approval by the medical director. As the Court phrased it, “Choi has no property right in continued assignment as a paramedic because the language cannot reasonably be read to create an expectation that a firefighter’s assignment to function as a paramedic for the City will continue unless specific criteria are made. Here, the plain language of the contractual provision permits precisely the action taken here, namely, a recommendation by the medical director to the City, based on the medical director’s medical judgment and unconstrained by any particular standards or criteria, that a particular firefighter should no longer function as a paramedic for the City. We conclude that there is no merit to the contention that constitutional principles of due process required the City to afford Choi a pre-deprivation hearing and appeal concerning its decision to remove him from his assignment as a paramedic and cease payment of the paramedic premium.”

San Diego Firefighters v. City of San Diego, 2009 WL 1423568 (Cal. App. 2009).

This article appears in the July 2009 issue