No Second Try For Employer In Drug Case

Michael La Porta is a corrections lieutenant for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. When La Porta tested positive for methamphetamine on a drug test, he appealed the termination decision. At a hearings board, the Department told the administrative law judge it needed a continuance because its one witness, a doctor who would have testified about the test results, was unavailable.

The judge telephoned the witness, who said he had only been asked to attend the hearing at 10:00 o’clock the night before and had been unable to obtain coverage for his patients that day. Finding good cause for a continuance lacking, the judge denied the Department’s request to postpone the hearing. As a result, the Department was able to call only La Porta as a witness during its case-in-chief. He denied using methamphetamine, and the judge ruled that the termination should be overturned.

After La Porta’s return to work, the Department fired him again, this time on the ground that he had lied in his testimony at the hearing. A second hearing was held. The director of the laboratory where La Porta’s sample was tested testified about the chain of custody, testing procedure, and test results. A doctor testified that La Porta’s results were positive for methamphetamine.

In spite of this showing, the administrative law judge found in La Porta’s favor again, holding that the Department was not entitled to a second attempt to discipline La Porta because its proof of misconduct depended in part on a renewed attempt to establish the facts it tried and failed to establish in support of the first attempt. The only difference was that, in the first attempt, the Department tried to show simply that La Porta used drugs, while in the second it undertook to show that La Porta took drugs and then falsely denied that he had done so.

The California Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of the charges against La Porta. The Court’s decision turned on the legal principle of “collateral estoppel,” which prohibits a party from relitigating an issue resolved against it in an earlier legal proceeding. The Court commented: “We will assume for the sake of argument that the Department’s charge of dishonesty brought in the second proceeding was a different cause of action from the charge of drug use brought in the first, and that claim preclusion (res judicata) therefore does not apply. The remaining question is whether issue preclusion (collateral estoppel) applies.

“At the second hearing, the Department could not prove the dishonesty charge without again litigating the factual issue of the alleged drug use. This was the same allegation the Department had litigated unsuccessfully in the first proceeding when it failed to produce its expert witness and presented only La Porta’s own testimony denying the allegation.

“The issue La Porta sought to preclude in the second proceeding is whether he used illegal drugs during his employment, which needed to be established before it could be determined whether he was dishonest in denying drug use. This identical issue was decided in the first proceeding, after the Department failed to produce its witness and submitted the case to the administrative law judge on La Porta’s denial alone.

“The issue was actually litigated: A witness testified about it and the judge was required to make a finding on whether the evidence established the accusation. The decision of the issue was necessary, as the matter the Department brought before the tribunal could not be adjudicated without it. The decision was on the merits. The judge made a finding, based on the evidence, that the charge was not established. Collateral estoppel therefore barred relitigation of the drug-use issue without which the Department could not establish La Porta’s dishonesty.”

California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation v. California State Personnel Board, 2014 WL 4723329 (Cal. App. 2014).