California Bill of Rights Applies Even Where Officers Are Cleared

Robert and Scarlett Paterson are Los Angeles police officers, married to each other. In December 2004, Robert called in sick. A lieutenant instructed Sergeant Adrian Legaspi to go to the Paterson home to find out if Robert was abusing sick leave. Legaspi spoke to both Robert and Scarlett.

Subsequently, the Department initiated an investigation into misconduct complaints alleging that Robert and Scarlett had made false and misleading statements to Legaspi. Both were temporarily relieved of duty, but were later exonerated by LAPD’s Board of Rights. The Patersons were reinstated and received back pay for the time of suspension.

The Patersons then sued the City, Legaspi, and others, alleging both that the City violated California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights and that the City had committed various “torts” such as the intentional infliction of emotional distress.

A trial court found that California’s Bill of Rights only applies where there has in fact been punitive action imposed upon a police officer, and that the Patersons’ exoneration by the Board of Rights nullified any punitive action, so that the Bill of Rights did not apply. The California Court of Appeals reversed the trial court’s dismissal of the lawsuit.

The Court found that the Bill of Rights “does not require a showing that an adverse employment consequence has occurred or is likely to occur. Rather, punitive action may exist when action is taken which may lead to the adverse consequences at some future time.”

The Court was clearly troubled by the policy implications of the City’s argument: “Under the City’s theory, it could choose to violate the Bill of Rights if it was confident that it would not ultimately prevail in its attempt to impose discipline, an absurd result. Moreover, the Bill of Rights is to the contrary, it provides that ‘it shall be unlawful for any public safety department to deny or refuse to any public safety officer the rights and protections guaranteed to him or her by this chapter.’ Application of the Bill of Rights is determined at the beginning of the action, not at its end. In this case, it is easy to determine that the sick check might have led to punitive action, because it did lead to punitive action.”

The Court did uphold the trial court’s dismissal of the “tort” claims filed by the Patersons. The Court cited a state statute that “a public employee is not liable for injury caused by his instituting or prosecuting any judicial or administrative proceeding within the scope of his employment, even if he acts maliciously and without probable cause.
“Under a separate state statute, except as otherwise provided by statute, a public entity is not liable for an injury resulting from an act or omission of an employee of the public entity where the employee is immune from liability.”

The Court found that Legaspi and the City were immune from personal liability on the “tort” causes of action, and remanded the case to the trial court for further proceedings on the claim of violation of the Bill or Rights.

Paterson v. City of Los Angeles, 95 Cal.Rptr.3d 333 (Cal. App. 2009).

This article appears in the September 2009 issue