Placement On Unpaid Leave Is Disciplinary Action For Purposes Of Bill Of Rights

Under California’s Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act, employers must follow a number of procedures when imposing disciplinary action. Those rights include granting an officer the right to a hearing to challenge the employer’s action.

The California Court of Appeals recently addressed whether the Bill of Rights applied when an employer places an officer on unpaid leave. The case involved Beatrice Sanchez, who worked for Riverside County as a probation corrections officer. In December 2007, Sanchez’s supervisor informed her she would be required to work the graveyard shift as part of the regular rotation of probation corrections officers. Thereafter, Sanchez gave her supervisor a letter from her physician, stating that Sanchez had lupus and restricting her from (1) working more than eight hours each day, (2) lifting more than 15 pounds, (3) standing for prolonged periods, and (4) working the graveyard shift.

After an investigation, the County removed Sanchez from her position, and on April 6, 2009, notified Sanchez of its intention to terminate her employment in a letter captioned “Notice of Intent to Release from Employment.” The letter advised Sanchez that the County had determined she could not perform the essential functions of her position, with or without reasonable accommodation. The April 6 letter also stated that Sanchez’s termination from her employment was “not being proposed for disciplinary reasons.” On April 23, 2009, the County notified Sanchez that her employment was terminated effective April 23.

On May 19, 2009, the County “rescinded” its April 23 termination letter, and contended that it never “processed” her termination. Then, on July 7, 2009, the County submitted a disability retirement application to CalPERS on behalf of Sanchez. The application stated that Sanchez’s last day in “paid status” was October 24, 2008, and her retirement was “effective October 25, 2008.” That move effectively placed Sanchez on unpaid leave until the County later terminated her employment on April 23, 2009.

The Appeals Court found that the decision to place Sanchez on leave without pay violated the Bill of Rights. The Court concluded that “by placing Sanchez on unpaid status, the County effectively terminated Sanchez due to her medical condition, and in so doing subjected her to the harshness the disability retirement laws are intended to alleviate. Though the County argues and we agree that it would have been inappropriate to return Sanchez to her former position as a probation corrections officer, given the County’s belief she was eligible for disability retirement, the County does not explain why it did not place Sanchez on paid administrative leave, at least pending the retirement system’s approval of its disability retirement application, if not pending a final decision on Sanchez’s appeal of that application, if approved. That would have alleviated the harshness of placing Sanchez on unpaid status or effectively terminating her effective October 25, 2008.”

Riverside Sheriff’s Ass’n v. County of Riverside, 2011 WL 441186 (Cal. App. 4 Dist. 2011).

This article appears in the May 2011 issue.