Josafat Rodriguez joined the Marine Corps in 1989 and served in the first gulf war as part of a five-man infantry team.  Three of his team members were killed, and Rodriguez had to help collect their bodies.  He was discharged from the Marines in 1993 and was hired by the Santa Cruz Police Department in 1995.  Rodriguez worked as a narcotics enforcement agent, performing dangerous undercover work.  Rodriguez injured his back in 2000 while conducting a nighttime raid and was unable to work for approximately one year.  Rodriguez returned to work as a police station duty officer because he could not return to field work.  Rodriguez went on leave to have back surgery in 2005.

In 2006, Rodriguez's doctor cleared him to return  to work and he was offered the position of police station duty officer.  Rodriguez rejected the offer and stated he was physically unable to perform the job.  He filed an application for industrial disability retirement in 2006, but the application was denied.  Rodriguez returned to work and repeatedly asked to go home due to pain, and eventually stopped showing up for work.  In 2007, Rodriguez resigned "for health reasons".  Three years later, he filed a second application for industrial disability retirement, claiming a psychological disability caused by posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  

At the administrative hearing on the application, Rodriguez testified that he first experienced PTSD symptoms early in his career with the police department, and that he had flashbacks to the war while working as a police station duty officer.  Rodriguez also testified to his activities outside of police work.  He got his real estate license around 2000 and led a team of real estate agents.  He founded a volunteer nonprofit organization called the Central Coast Gang Investigator Association in 2001, and was identified as a member of its advisory counsel as of 2011.  He formed two corporations and a family trust between 2004 and 2007, and started his own private investigation business in 2009 or 2010. 

The reports of six medical professionals were entered into evidence at the administrative hearing.  Three doctors diagnosed Rodriguez with PTSD, one diagnosed him with anxiety and depression, and one found he was not capable of gainful employment without further treatment.  The remaining doctor originally diagnosed Rodriguez with PTSD, but later concluded that Rodriguez was not credible in light of his failure to disclose his real estate work, the corporation he formed, or his role with the Central Coast Gang Investigator Association, as well as his failure to inform the police department of his psychological problems and inconsistencies in his testimony.

The ALJ found that Rodriguez failed to establish that he was permanently incapacitated from performing the duties of a police station duty officer.  While the ALJ did not doubt the accuracy of Rodriguez's PTSD diagnosis, she concluded that Rodriguez could perform the requisite duties based on evidence that he was successfully employed as a police officer for many years and started various other businesses.  The ALJ also found that Rodriguez's lack of memory regarding his activities outside of police work and his failure to provide all of the relevant facts and information to the medical professionals negatively affected his credibility. 

Rodriguez filed a petition for writ of mandate, which the trial court denied.  He appealed, and the Court of Appeal reversed and remanded.

When a trial court reviews an administrative decision, the appropriate standard of review depends on the type of agency rendering the decision and the type of right involved.  When the administrative decision maker is a local agency and the decision affects a fundamental vested right, the trial court must exercise its independent judgment and determine whether the findings are supported by the weight of the evidence.  While it must afford the findings a strong presumption of correctness, it also has the responsibility to weigh the evidence and make its own determinations of the credibility of the witnesses. 

Here, because the local agency's decision involved Rodriguez's fundamental vested right to a disability retirement pension if he was disabled, the trial court should have exercised its independent judgment.  The trial court stated that there was "sufficient evidence" for the ALJ to find that Rodriguez lacked credibility and that he was not incapacitated from work.  The use of the words "sufficient evidence" led the Court of Appeal to believe that the trial court applied the substantial evidence standard, not the independent judgment standard.  Further, while the trial court referenced the independent judgment standard, it also incorrectly stated that the ALJ's decision was entitled to deference.  Therefore, the Court of Appeal held that the trial court applied the incorrect standard, and it remanded the matter to the trial court with directions to review Rodriguez's petition for writ of mandate under the independent judgment standard of review. 

Note:

This case contains valuable lessons for public sector employers whose employees are entitled to administrative hearings to appeal the loss of a fundamental vested rights such as the right to employment, or to a retirement pension.  The administrative hearing is always subject to court review and the court will apply an independent judgment analysis.  While the administrative decision is entitled to a presumption of correctness, it is not entitled to deference according to this decision. The decision also contains an important footnote that states that the administrative law judge's credibility determinations were not entitled to deference because the judge did not identify any evidence of demeanor, manner, or attitude supporting the conclusion that Rodriguez was not credible. 

Rodriguez v. City of Santa Cruz (2014) ___Cal.App.4th ____ [2014 WL 3512766].