City Of Seattle Sues City Of Seattle, Loses

Richard Roberson is a police officer for the City of Seattle, and has a “significant disciplinary history.” In 2005, the City imposed a 30-day suspension on Roberson for three incidents. The first incident involved Roberson’s failure to properly follow up on a theft call because he mistakenly believed that “there’s no such crime as attempted theft.” The second incident dealt with allegations that Roberson had mishandled and failed to safeguard evidence. The third incident involved allegations of insubordination and a lack of professionalism.

Seattle’s Civil Service Commission sustained the first set of charges, but found no “just cause” to discipline Roberson for the second and third incidents. Considering Roberson’s disciplinary history, the Commission imposed a seven-day suspension.

In making its decision, the Commission relied on the familiar seven-part test for just cause first announced by Arbitrator Carroll Daugherty in the arbitration decision in Grief Bros. Cooperage Corp., 42 Lab. Arb. 555 (1964). That test evaluates whether (1) the employee had notice that his or her conduct would result in disciplinary consequences; (2) the rule was reasonable; (3) the employer investigated to determine whether the rule was in fact violated; (4) the investigation was fair; (5) the employer’s decision-maker had substantial evidence that the employee violated the rule as charged; (6) the employer applies its rules even-handedly; and (7) the discipline administered was fair in relation to the nature of the offense and imposed with regard to the employee’s past work record.

The City appealed, alleging that the Commission’s decision was arbitrary or capricious. The City argued that the Commission had no authority to apply the seven-part “just cause” standard.

In rejecting the City’s arguments, the Washington Court of Appeals acknowledged the tension between the roles of the Police Chief and the Commission: “The Department makes a persuasive argument that the Chief of Police must be able to hold officers to a high standard and to consider whether the officer’s conduct harms the public service, and that the Chief’s judgments must be respected by the Commission. But the City police civil service statute places great discretion in the Commission as well. It provides that the tenure of police officers shall be only during good behavior and that officers may be disciplined or discharged for any action or inaction indicating unfitness for employment in the public service.”

In the end, the Court found that the Commission had the authority to adopt the just-cause test: “The essential question here is whether, in an area where the legislative bodies have not defined their terms, the body appointed to administer the statute has discretion to do so. We believe it does, so long as its determination is reasonable, and we cannot say that adoption of the stricter test is not reasonable.”

City of Seattle v. City of Seattle, 2010 WL 1758354 (Wash. App. Div. 1 2010).

This article appears in the June 2010 issue