David Esparza, Alan Mark, Anthony Mora, and Irene Redd (Plaintiffs) were peace officers employed by the Los Angeles County Office of Public Safety (OPS). OPS officers were "limited" purpose peace officers who enforced the law in or about County properties. In 2009, the County Board of Supervisors voted to merge the OPS with the Sheriff's Department for economic reasons. Under the plan adopted by the Board of Supervisors, qualified officers would be afforded sworn positions in the Sheriff's Department, and officers who did not qualify would be offered non-sworn positions.
Plaintiffs sued the County, the Sheriff's Department, the Board of Supervisors, and the Los Angeles Civil Service Commission (Defendants) asserting that they were retaliated and discriminated against for participating in a 1998 racial discrimination lawsuit against the County and for associating with other OPS officers. They alleged that most OPS officers were terminated or given lower-paying non-sworn jailer positions under a variety of pretexts. For instance, Esparza alleged that a "hired gun" performed his fitness for duty examination with the intention of failing him. While Mark's application was rejected because of his moderate colorblindness, Mark asserted that his "moderate red/green deficiency" had not impaired his previous law enforcement experience. As a result of these alleged "pretexts," Plaintiffs were demoted to the position of custody assistants with the Sheriff's Department and suffered a substantial reduction in pay.
Plaintiffs alleged six causes of action under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), including retaliation, age discrimination, disability discrimination, and failure to prevent discrimination. They also alleged six causes of action under the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBR), asserting that the Board of Supervisors' vote to eliminate OPS and the Sheriff's Department's refusal to hire Plaintiffs as deputy sheriffs constituted demotions and punitive actions that should have triggered the POBR's procedural protections. They also claimed that the Sheriff's Department violated the POBR by requiring Plaintiffs to go through the deputy sheriff application process.
Plaintiffs also sought a writ of mandate on the basis that the Defendants should have provided administrative appeal hearings before discharging them and reducing them to custody assistants.
Defendants demurred on the grounds that the County's legislative immunity barred Plaintiffs' suit and that the POBR did not apply to Plaintiffs' efforts to secure employment with the Sheriff's Department. The trial court granted the demurrer without leave to amend, and Plaintiffs appealed.
Government Code 818.2 provides that "[a] public entity is not liable for an injury caused by adopting or failing to adopt an enactment or by failing to enforce any law." Defendants argued that the Board of Supervisors made a decision, on the basis of economics, to use the Sheriff's Department for certain functions instead of maintaining a separate police force.
While Plaintiffs argued that section 818.2 does not bar liability for the County's failure to discharge its mandatory duty to comply with FEHA, section 818.2 immunity is absolute and precludes imposition of liability under statutes such as FEHA. Plaintiffs also argued that nearly all of their causes of action were based on individual employment decisions, not on the County's legislative act. The Court rejected this argument, noting that section 818.2 immunity covers the implementation of an enactment, not just the adoption of the enactment, and Plaintiffs lost their jobs because the County decided to eliminate the entire OPS department. Thus, the Court upheld the trial court's decision to sustain Defendants' demurrer as to Plaintiffs' FEHA causes of action.
As for Plaintiffs' POBR causes of action, the Court held that Plaintiffs were collaterally estopped from bringing their claims. Collateral estoppel prevents a party from re-litigating an issue that the same parties (or those in privity with the parties) previously litigated and that resulted in a final judgment on the merits.
Plaintiffs had filed suit against Defendants in 2011 in federal district court for violations of FEHA, the POBR, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The district court dismissed the complaint, and the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed, holding that "[n]othing in either [the POBR] or the Los Angeles County Civil Service Rules entitled Plaintiffs to continued employment or administrative appeal hearings when the Board eliminated OPS."
The Court of Appeal held that because Plaintiffs already litigated the issue of potential POBR violations, they were not entitled to re-litigate the issue. The Court also held that Plaintiffs were collaterally estopped from litigating their petition for writ of mandate. Thus, the Court of Appeal affirmed the trial court's decision to sustain Defendants' demurrer.
Esparza v. County of Los Angeles (2014) ___ Cal.App.4th___ [2014 WL 855042].