On November 9, 2009, Jason Pedro, a police officer with the City of Los Angeles, drove a female friend, a minor, to a medical clinic in an unmarked police car while he was on duty and in uniform. Francis O'Brien attempted to give Pedro anti-abortion literature upon his arrival at the clinic, but Pedro declined without speaking to O'Brien.  O'Brien complained to the police department that an officer was conducting personal business while on duty, and provided the police car's license number. Sergeant Rodney Peacock was directed to investigate the matter, and drove to the clinic.  Pedro and Peacock exchanged pleasantries while Pedro was walking back to his car from the clinic.  Peacock asked Pedro what he was doing there, and Pedro said he had dropped someone off at the clinic.  Pedro asked what Peacock was doing there, and Peacock said he was visiting a nearby store.  Peacock asked Pedro whether the person he had dropped off was a victim.  According to Pedro, he thought this was small talk and did not directly respond.  According to Peacock's report, Pedro stated that he was "working with the Gang Unit in Detectives" and was conducting a follow up with a victim.

On November 30, 2009, Pedro drove the same minor to the same medical clinic in an unmarked police car while he was on duty and in uniform.  O'Brien again offered anti-abortion literature.  Pedro told O'Brien to "Get the hell back," and twice stated "Get the fuck away from the car."  O'Brien sent a letter to the Chief of Police on December 1, 2009, stating his suspicions that an officer driving an unmarked police car was conducting personal business while on duty on November 9 and 30, 2009.  The letter was received on December 3, forwarded for investigation on December 10, and assigned to a lieutenant on December 16, 2009. 

On December 20, 2010, Pedro received an administrative complaint charging him with four counts of misconduct: (1) using a city vehicle inappropriately to transport a member of the public in order to conduct personal business while on duty on November 9, 2009; (2) using a city vehicle inappropriately to transport a member of the public in order to conduct personal business while on duty on November 30, 2009; (3) making a discourteous statement to O'Brien while on duty on November 30, 2009; and (4) making a misleading statement while on duty to a police department supervisor conducting an official investigation on November 9, 2009. 

On April 29, 2011, a hearing took place in front of the Board of Rights.  Pedro pled "guilty, but with an explanation" to counts one and two, and pled "not guilty" to counts three and four.  Pedro moved to dismiss all charges based on the one-year statute of limitations found in Government Code section 3304, part of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBRA).  The Board agreed that the counts were barred by the statute of limitations.  However, the City moved for reconsideration, and the Chief of Police stated that all four counts were within the statute and directed the Board to proceed.  The Board heard testimony.  It found Pedro guilty on all four counts, and recommended a 22-day suspension.  Pedro filed a petition for writ of administrative mandamus against the City.  He alleged that counts one, two, and three were all barred by the statute of limitations, that the Chief of Police had no authority to reject the Board's findings, and that his POBRA rights were violated when Peacock questioned Pedro on November 9, 2009 without informing him that he was being investigated for misconduct.  The trial court granted Pedro's writ petition, and the City appealed.

The City did not challenge the trial court's decision that count one was barred by the statute of limitations.  It argued, however, that counts two and three were not barred, and that the Chief of Police had the authority to decide whether those counts were barred.  The Court of Appeal disagreed.  It reviewed the Charter of the City of Los Angeles, as well as the Board of Rights Manual, and held that it was the Board's responsibility to adjudicate charges, which includes deciding whether a statute of limitations has run.  The Board should have exercised its independent judgment on the issue instead of yielding to the Chief. 

The Court then analyzed the POBRA's statute of limitations.  Subject to certain exceptions, a public agency has one year in which to complete its investigation and notify the public safety officer that discipline may be taken.  The one-year period begins to run upon discovery by a person authorized to initiate an investigation into an allegation of misconduct.    

Counts two and three relate to conduct that occurred on November 30, 2009.  The Department became aware of the alleged misconduct when it received O'Brien's letter on December 3, 2009.  Pedro was served with an administrative complaint on December 20, 2010.  The Court found that the police department and persons authorized to initiate an investigation were aware of the allegations of misconduct on or before December 20, 2009, but there was no evidence that any supervisor actually identified Pedro as the accused officer by that date.  Accordingly, the parties disputed whether a person authorized to initiate an investigation must know or suspect the identity of the officer who allegedly committed the misconduct before the limitations period begins to run. 

The Court held that ignorance of the identity of the accused officer does not delay commencement of the limitations period.  Under the common law rule, a limitations period begins to run when the cause of action accrues, and the cause of action accrues when it is complete as to all of its elements: wrongdoing, causation, and harm.  Identity of the wrongdoer is not one of the elements, and ignorance of the wrongdoer's identity does not delay accrual of the cause of action.

The POBRA statute of limitations does not suggest that the defendant's identity must be known or suspected for the limitations period to commence.  Thus, the Court of Appeal applied the general rule that ignorance of the wrongdoer's identity does not delay accrual of the cause of action, and held that the limitations period began to run on counts two and three when a person authorized to initiate an investigation first became aware of an allegation of misconduct.  That occurred no later than December 16, 2009, when O'Brien's allegations of misconduct were assigned to a lieutenant.  Therefore, the December 20, 2010 administrative complaint was untimely, and the court's dismissal of counts two and three was proper. 

The City also argued that count four was not barred by the statute of limitations.  The trial court applied the discovery rule, an exception to the common law rule, which states that accrual of a cause of action is delayed until the plaintiff discovers, or has reason to discover, the cause of action.  The trial court found that the limitations period began to run on November 9, 2009 because Peacock was obligated to investigate O'Brien's allegation with reasonable diligence and failed to do so.  In other words, Peacock should have discovered that Pedro's November 9, 2009 statement that he was dropping off a victim was false.  The Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's application of the discovery rule. 

The discovery rule charges a plaintiff with presumptive knowledge of information that would have been revealed if he or she had conducted a reasonable investigation after becoming aware of or suspecting an injury caused by wrongdoing.  The California Supreme Court has held that the limitations period under Code of Civil Procedure 338, which uses the term "discovery," commences when a plaintiff discovers or reasonably should have discovered the facts constituting fraud.  Government Code section 3304 was enacted after Code of Civil Procedure 338, and also uses the term "discovery."  Thus, the Court of Appeal assumed that the Legislature intended for the terms to have the same meaning.  It held that the limitations period under Government Code section 3304 begins to run when a person authorized to initiate an investigation discovers, or through the use of reasonable diligence, should have discovered, the allegations of misconduct. 

The Court of Appeal held that there was substantial evidence in support of the trial court's finding that Peacock should have discovered on November 9, 2009 that Pedro's alleged statement was false.  Peacock could have inquired at the clinic, or could have asked his watch commander whether the clinic was a facility where the police took crime victims for treatment, to which the answer would have been "no."  He could have asked Pedro and others further questions to ascertain whether Pedro was conducting official business.  Thus, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's ruling that count four was barred by the statute of limitations. 

For the foregoing reasons, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's grant of Pedro's writ petition.  

Note:

The decision illustrates the importance of public safety departments to diligently initiate and complete investigations within the one-year period mandated by the Government Code.  The one-year period will run once the agency knows of the alleged misconduct, even if the identity of the suspect or officer who engaged in the misconduct is not yet known.  In addition, courts will not extend the one-year statute if it finds that an investigator did not reasonably discover information that he or she reasonably should have discovered.  Public safety agencies should place checks upon its investigations to ensure they are completed in a timely fashion, or risk being precluded from disciplining an employee who engages in misconduct after the investigation is completed too late.

Pedro v. City of Los Angeles (2014) __ Cal.App.4th __ [2014 WL 4181813].