California Bill Of Rights Claims Can Be Arbitrated

In June 2005, the City of Santa Rosa, California hired James Mitchel as a police captain. Beginning in 2007, various subordinate officers filed gender discrimination complaints against Mitchel and Police Chief Edwin Flint. In February 2008, the City informed Mitchel it had initiated an internal affairs investigation. Mitchel and the complainants were interviewed and an investigative report was prepared in March 2008, with a copy given to Mitchel.

In April 2008, the City notified Mitchel it intended to terminate his employment. A disciplinary hearing to decide the matter was scheduled for May 23, 2008. While the hearing was pending, Mitchel sued the City, alleging a violation of his due process rights, among other claims. The hearing proceeded as scheduled and the City notified Mitchel that he was terminated effective May 30, 2008. The City advised Mitchel he could challenge termination by requesting an administrative hearing or binding arbitration. Mitchel chose arbitration.

A three-member arbitration panel held that the City had just cause for terminating Mitchel, finding that Mitchel was “inappropriate and unprofessional” with employees and dishonest when interviewed during the internal affairs investigation. The Arbitrators noted that Mitchel “asserted that the City violated various provisions of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBRA).” The Arbitrators did not address that claim, concluding that “the Superior Court exercises exclusive jurisdiction for causes of action stated under this statutory scheme.”

Mitchel then filed a new complaint in court alleging that the arbitration panel erred by not considering whether the City violated the statewide Bill of Rights in the disciplinary process. The California Court of Appeals accepted Mitchel’s theory, but ultimately turned away his lawsuit.

The Court held that “the Arbitrators clearly erred in failing to resolve Mitchel’s POBRA claims. The Superior Court does not, in fact, have exclusive jurisdiction over POBRA claims. An employee may assert violation of POBRA as a defense to discipline in the administrative proceedings, or can seek an adjudication in court.” Mitchel was entitled to assert violation of POBRA as a defense to discipline in the arbitration proceeding.

“The City asserts that the Arbitrators’ error is beyond the scope of our review, as an error in legal reasoning. But there is a distinction between error during consideration of a contested issue and error in failing to consider a contested issue. Arbitrators may decide a point incorrectly but they must decide it.

“Nonetheless, here the POBRA issues omitted from the Arbitrators’ consideration were subsequently resolved in a judicial forum. Mitchel sought to vacate the award for the Arbitrators’ failure to consider his POBRA claims but also prosecuted his POBRA claims in a civil complaint filed in Superior Court. The action was removed to federal district court and the district court resolved Mitchel’s POBRA claims, dismissing them with prejudice. The dismissal was upheld on appeal. Mitchel, having invoked a court’s concurrent jurisdiction to decide the POBRA issues, may not seek a new arbitration hearing to re-litigate those same issues.”

Mitchel v. City of Santa Rosa, 2014 WL 795076 (Cal. App. 2014).