Robert Hughes was a Deputy Sheriff with the County of San Bernardino for more than 30 years. In September 2009, the County served Hughes with charges of misconduct and suspended him without pay for 15 days. Hughes filed an administrative appeal with the County's Civil Service Commission (CSC).
In September 2011, Hughes suffered a heart attack and was put on medical leave. That same month, Hughes' attorney appeared on his behalf at the hearing on the administrative appeal. Hughes was unable to appear because he was still hospitalized. Hughes' attorney entered into a tentative oral settlement agreement on the record without authorization from Hughes. The hearing officer instructed the County's representative to prepare a written settlement agreement, but the County did not do so.
In March 2012, Hughes obtained new counsel and asked the CSC to continue with the administrative appeal. The County objected, stating that the matter had been settled pursuant to the tentative oral settlement agreement. On March 2012, while the issue was pending before the CSC, Hughes retired from the County. On June, 13, 2012, the CSC denied Hughes' request to continue with the appeal. Hughes asked the County for an administrative appeal under Government Code section 3304, part of the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBR). The County denied the request since Hughes had retired and because the parties had reached the settlement.
Hughes then filed a petition for writ of mandate. He also alleged disability discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The County demurred, arguing that Hughes had previously been afforded an opportunity for a hearing and that the CSC did not have jurisdiction to conduct a post-retirement administrative hearing, and that Hughes had lost his right to a hearing under the POBR when he retired. The trial court sustained the County's demurrer and dismissed the action. Hughes appealed the decision.
The Court of Appeal disagreed with the trial court's determination that Hughes had already been afforded an opportunity for a hearing. The Court held that, while there is case law holding that a public entity may enforce procedural rules that result in an actual hearing not being held without denying a plaintiff the opportunity to be heard, the County did not point to any procedural rule it followed that resulted in Hughes' hearing not being heard. Rather, the County relied on the tentative settlement agreement to argue that Hughes had given up his opportunity for a hearing. However, the agreement was not enforceable: Hughes had not agreed to the settlement and did not receive any consideration in exchange for it. Thus, Hughes was deprived of an opportunity for a hearing.
The Court then analyzed applicable Personnel Rules to determine whether the CSC retained the ability to hear the appeal after Hughes retired. The County's Personnel Rules gave all classified employees with regular status the right to appeal and request a hearing. The Court interpreted "regular status" to distinguish between a regular and a probationary employee. The Rules gave the CSC jurisdiction over matters specifically appealable under relevant sections of the Rules. However, the Rules were silent on whether the CSC lost jurisdiction of a properly initiated appeal upon retirement of the employee before the appeal is completed.
The fact the Personnel Rules were silent on the issue convinced the Court that the CSC's jurisdiction did not end once an employee left County employment. Practically speaking, the Court determined, an administrative appeal could last over a long period of time and it was possible that an employee might become ill, injured or reach retirement age during the pendency of the appeal. A contrary holding would force an employee to remain in the workforce solely to complete his or her appeal. The Court placed the burden on the employer to show loss of jurisdiction of an existing appeal upon separation from employment.
In light of the fact that the applicable Personnel Rules did not have a provision depriving the CSC of jurisdiction upon separation of employment and the unfairness it found in interpreting such a rule to exist in the absence of explicit language, the Court held that the County was required to hold an administrative hearing on Hughes' appeal.
In Zuniga v. Los Angeles Civil Service Com. (2006) 137 Cal.App.4th 1255, the Court of Appeal held that the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission lost jurisdiction to adjudicate an administrative appeal after the appellant retired since the applicable civil service rules specifically applied to an "employee," which the rules defined as "any person holding a position in the classified service of the county." The Zuniga court determined the existence of exceptions to the rule for certain persons no longer employed meant an employee must remain actively employed during the appeal if he or she did not satisfy an exception. Relying on Zuniga, the court in County of Los Angeles Dept. of Health Services v. Civil Service Com. Of County of Los Angeles (2009) 180 Cal.App.4th 391 similarly held that the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission lost jurisdiction to hear an administrative appeal of an employee when the employee retired while the appeal was pending. Here, however, the Court of Appeal did not find any similar specific language excluding a retired San Bernardino County employee from continuing with a hearing and, contrary to Zuniga, placed on the burden of proof on the Commission to justify that the rules did not cover a retired employee.
Hughes v. County of San Bernardino (2016) 244 Cal.App.4th 542.