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The Third District Court of Appeal Upholds Reinstatement of Sacramento Police Officer

Posted on Monday, March 01, 2004 at 12:00PM
Posted by BY DAVID E. MASTAGNI

On November 25, 2003, the Court of Appeal for the Third Appellate District issued an opinion upholding the reinstatement of Sacramento Police Officer Dan Farnsworth. The appellate opinion marks the conclusion of over three years of litigation to achieve Farnsworth’s reinstatement to the department.

Superior Court Issues Writ of Mandates

As originally published in the August 2003 addition of PORAC Law Enforcement News, Sacramento Superior Court Judge Talmadge Jones granted a writ of mandate reinstating Farnsworth to the position of police officer on December 19, 2002.

The alleged bases of Farnsworth’s termination were failure to properly report an on-duty vehicle accident, commingling of evidence, permitting an informant to drive without a license, alleged insubordination in internal affairs, and dishonesty in the preparation of a number of search warrants. On May 15, 2001, the city of Sacramento Civil Service Board (CSB) adopted a proposed decision upholding Farnsworth’s termination despite eliminating all charges except those involving search warrant preparation. Mastagni, Holstedt & Amick filed a petition for writ of mandate on behalf of Farnsworth alleging the board’s decision was not supported by the weight of the evidence and that the penalty of termination constituted an abuse of discretion.

Judge Jones found that the weight of the evidence did not support the administrative law judge’s finding that Farnsworth had intentionally used incorrect dates and was dishonest. Jones stated that the number of the inaccuracies in the affidavit was not sufficient either by itself or as a percentage of Farnsworth’s total affidavits to indicate a dishonest motive. Jones further noted that the nature of the discrepancies did not support a charge of dishonesty. Jones also noted in some cases the date of the actual “buy” was within the department’s usual period of seven days, but the discrepancy occurred because Farnsworth erroneously stated a six-day ‘‘buy window’’ in his affidavit. Jones placed great weight on the fact that the discrepancies were not major and would not necessarily have invalidated the search warrants. Jones noted that the buys were still within the period of time in which under applicable constitutional standards a search warrant could have been granted. Because the stale buys could be refreshed without any difficulty, Jones was not persuaded that Farnsworth had motive to lie in the affidavits.

In determining that Farnsworth had not been intentionally dishonest, Jones relied upon the testimony of several police officers concerning Farnsworth’s reputation for honesty and the fact that Farnsworth had not previously been subjected to any disciplinary action. In the court’s view, the evidence did not establish dishonesty, only a pattern of inadvertence, carelessness, and negligence in Farnsworth’s preparation of the affidavits for a search warrant. Because the evidence established only negligence and carelessness rather than dishonesty, Jones found the discipline imposed constituted a manifest abuse of discretion. Jones noted that this was Farnsworth’s first offense; he had a good reputation and had not been given the benefit of progressive discipline. Jones stated that some level of discipline short of termination was justified based on Farnsworth’s pattern of inadvertent errors, and Jones remanded the matter to the CSB to access the appropriate level of penalty.

Post-Judgment Disputes

Based on this finding, the court ordered Farnsworth reinstated with back pay and benefits subject to any suspension the CSB might impose on remand. On or about January 27, 2003, the city filed notice of appeal from the peremptory writ of mandate issued by the trial court. Initially, the city refused to comply with the reinstatement order, contending their appeal stayed the issuance of the writ. After realizing appeal does not stay a writ issued pursuant to C.C.P. § 1094.5 and facing possible contempt of court, the city begrudgingly complied with the court order by setting a hearing before the CSB to reassess the penalty. The board rejected the city’s argument for a multi-year suspension or demotion, instead imposing a brief suspension.

The city immediately filed a writ of supersedeas requesting that the reinstatement and back-pay order be stayed. Farnsworth opposed, alleging irreparable injury if left unemployed and unemployable during the pendency of appeal. On or about May 2, 2003, the Third District Court of Appeal denied the city’s application for stay.

The City Argues to Abrogate the Efficacy of the Independent Judgment Standard in the Third District Court of Appeal

On appeal, the city argued that Judge Jones failed to correctly perform an independent review of the record by not affording the decision of the CSB a strong enough presumption of correctness. In support of this argument, the city contended civil service findings come before the court with a nearly insurmountable presumption of correctness. The city further alleged that Jones failed to afford the findings the correct presumption of correctness because Jones did not expressly articulate the magnitude of the presumption he afforded, failed to address all of the analysis contained in the CSB decision, and failed to address all of the charges the termination was based upon.

The city presented an extended analysis of Fukuda v. City of Los Angeles, (1999) 20 Cal.4th 805 essentially arguing that the presumption of correctness afforded by Fukuda required Farnsworth to demonstrate that the decision was not supported by substantial evidence. The city appeared to argue language in Fukuda indicating the trial court must find abuse of discretion on the facts to substitute its judgment for the CSB findings, required that the CSB finding be reviewed for abuse of discretion. The city argued that CSB decision could “rarely, if ever,” be overturned through independent judgment review.

On appeal, the trial court decision is reviewed under a substantial evidence standard of review. Under this standard, the trial decision must be upheld if it is supported by substantial evidence. Substantial evidence is defined as evidence of “ponderable legal significance … reasonable in nature, credible, and of solid value” and “relevant evidence that a reasonable mind might accept as adequate to support a conclusion” (Young v. Gannon (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 209, 225). When more than one inference can be reasonably deduced from the facts, the appellate court cannot substitute its deductions for those of the Superior Court (Green v. Board of Dental Examiners (1996) 47 Cal.App.4th 786, 796; Mann v. Department of Motor Vehicles, supra, 76 Cal.App.4th at 321).

Farnsworth argued the Superior Court decision was supported by substantial evidence. The city never addressed this threshold issue; instead arguing the Court of Appeal was precluded from scrutinizing the record for substantial evidence because the alleged misapplication of independent judgment infused the analysis of the trial court with error. The Court of Appeal interpreted this argument as waiver of the claim that substantial evidence did not support the decision of the Superior Court.

During oral arguments before the appellate court, this author argued that the Superior Court decision must be presumed correct, and the record indicated that Judge Jones applied independent judgment review properly, affording deference to the CSB decision. Further, Jones was not required to address every issue discussed in the CSB decision and did address all the material findings of the CSB. The sustained findings, such as negligence, were considered by the trial court in remanding the case to the CSB to affix a penalty for those charges.

Most importantly, we objected to the city’s attempt to abrogate independent judgment review by granting an insurmountable presumption of correctness. The presumption is only a starting point of the trial court’s analysis, effectively placing the burden of proof upon the employee challenging the administrative decision. The trial court must exercise its own “independent” judgment in sifting through the record and may substitute its findings.

At hearing, Judge Scotland, the presiding justice of the Third District Court of Appeal, corrected the city’s misstatements as to the affect of the presumption of correctness is to apply the burden of proof to the appellant to demonstrate that the administrative findings are incorrect. The court confirmed the interpretation of independent judgment advocated by Farnsworth. The appellate court explained that an abuse of discretion on the facts is established where the trial court determines the CSB decision is not supported by the weight of evidence. The court noted that the trial court sufficiently articulated its basis for determining the weight of evidence does not support the dishonesty charges. Scotland agreed the trial court addressed all material issues. The Third District Court of Appeal affirmed Judge Jones’ judgment.

Conclusion

The opinion of the presiding justice of the Third District Court of Appeal is significant in repudiating the city of Sacramento’s overt attempt to erode the right of public employees to seek independent judgment review of administrative decisions. Independent judgment review often provides officers subject to a civil service board, the only impartial review of their disciplinary action. Independent judgment review provides review under a much less deferential standard than most appeals. As a result, independent judgment provides officers a meaningful opportunity reverse erroneous civil service decisions and disciplinary actions.

The support from the Legal Defense Fund for Farnsworth’s appeal was crucial in achieving this favorable result. Hopefully, Justice Scotland’s clarification as to the operation of independent judgment will discourage the type of endless appeals Farnsworth faced. Farnsworth has subsequently returned to patrol and looks forward continuing his career as a Sacramento police officer.

PORAC Legal Defense Administrator Ed Fishman Testimony: Law Enforcement Use of Body Cameras.