Yolo County D.A. Investigator Wins Lawsuit Over Disclosure of Confidential Personnel Information

Posted on Wednesday, March 10, 2010 at 12:00PM
Posted by Sean D. Howell

A Yolo County District Attorney Investigator whose disciplinary action was disclosed by his chief investigator to members of a statewide investigators association has settled a federal lawsuit over the disclosure for over $75,000. While financial recovery for the release of confidential peace officer personnel information is difficult because the statute involved does not provide a monetary remedy, this case demonstrates lawsuits for such disclosures can be successful.

In November, 2008, the Yolo County District Attorney’s Chief Investigator, Pete Martin, told Dave Markss, President of the California Association of D.A. Investigators, as well as a Davis police officer, about a discipline case against veteran District Attorney Investigator Randy Skaggs. Dave Markss told the chief investigators in several other counties about the confidential information he was given by Chief Martin.

At the time, Mr. Skaggs was the subject of an administrative investigation involving an off-duty teaching assignment. Martin’s disclosure effectively ended Mr. Skagg’s law enforcement career by foreclosing any possibility he could get hired in another county, regardless of the outcome of the disciplinary action.

Lawsuit Alleges Violation of Privacy Rights

Penal Code Section 832.5 makes peace officer personnel records confidential. Law enforcement agencies are prohibited from disclosing those records except pursuant to a court order or in a criminal matter involving the officer, under Penal Code Section 832.7.

We filed a federal lawsuit against Yolo County and the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office for violations of Mr. Skaggs’s federal and state privacy and due process rights, his protections against whistleblower retaliation, and his confidentiality rights under Section 832.7. The lawsuit alleged Mr. Skaggs suffered emotional and physical distress as well as other damages from this egregious violation of his rights.

Settlement Overcomes “Exclusivity Rule” for Workplace Injuries

Traditionally, courts have not allowed recovery outside the workers’ compensation system for work-related personal injuries, even where those injuries were caused by the employer’s own misconduct. California Labor Code Section 3600(a) provides that workers’ compensation liability is the exclusive remedy against an employer for any injury to an employee that occurs in the course and scope of the employment.

This “exclusivity rule” is based on a presumed “compensation bargain” between employer and employee by which the employer agrees to pay for work-related injuries and the employee gives up the wider range of damages potentially available in a personal injury claim. One exception to this rule is those injuries caused when the employer has engaged in intentional conduct outside its proper role in the employment relationship.

In Mr. Skagg’s case, Chief Martin admitted to the disclosure during the administrative appeal from the disciplinary action. He even admitted it was a mistake to release the information, although he blamed others for failing to keep his illegal disclosure a secret.

In a similar case involving a peace officer’s claim for defamation, the court used a two-part test for evaluating whether a cause of action is exempt from the “exclusivity rule”: (1) is the employee seeking to recover damages for industrial personal injury or death sustained in and arising out of the course and scope of employment? (2) If so, do the employer’s actions or motives giving rise to the injury constitute a risk reasonably encompassed within the compensation bargain? If the answer to one or both of these questions is no, then the injury falls outside the purview of the worker’s compensation system. (Operating Engineers Local 3 v. Johnson (2003) 110 Cal. App. 4th 180.)

The employee’s injury, not the employer’s action in causing the injury, determines whether the “exclusivity rule” will bar a claim under Step 1 of the Johnson test. In a claim like Mr. Skaggs’ case, the types of injuries an employee sustains as a result of an employer’s breach of privacy — anxiety, embarrassment, humiliation, shame, depression, feelings of powerlessness, anguish – constitute a personal injury and satisfy the first step of the exclusivity analysis. The nature of the employer’s action, however – an invasion of the employee’s constitutional right to privacy – by definition goes beyond the bounds of acceptable employer conduct and “is obnoxious to the interests of the state and contrary to public policy and sound morality.” (Johnson at p. 191.)

These principles allowed Mr. Skaggs to reach a settlement with Yolo County that resolved both the lawsuit and the companion disciplinary action. Had the parties been unable to settle, the County and the District Attorney would have faced a higher settlement demand and greater public scrutiny as the case proceeded in federal court.

The “compensation bargain” does not contemplate acts which are too far removed from those an employee could reasonably expect to arise in the normal course and scope of employment. While administrative investigations, disciplinary actions, and employee reprimands are, in most circumstances, a normal part of the employment relationship, the intentional dissemination of private personnel information to employees and outsiders who have no legitimate reason to know of it may exceed the known and inherent risks of the workplace. Thus, improper dissemination of private employee matters can feasibly serve as the basis for a civil suit against an employer, as was successfully done for Mr. Skaggs.

Sean D. Howell is an associate attorney with Mastagni, Holstedt, Amick, Miller & Johnsen. He represented Randy Skaggs in the civil litigation and in his administrative appeal.

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