Transit Officer Scores Win in Court of Appeal

Posted on Tuesday, September 01, 1998 at 12:00PM

In a published decision, the Court of Appeal handed Officer Roderick Townsel an important legal decision in his five-year legal battle with the San Diego Metropolitan Transit District. The district until now has refused to provide evidentiary hearings to employees that they chose to discipline. The court ruled that Townsel has a right to full due process evidentiary hearing as a result of his termination from employment.

Townsel, who worked as a code compliance officer for the district initially, received a short-term suspension for alleged misconduct in 1993. The district refused to grant any type of meaningful hearing to contest the charges.

The Legal Defense Fund authorized a lawsuit that ended in defeat in Federal Court after the court ruled that Townsel was not entitled to a hearing since he was not a “Civil Service” employee.

While this matter was being litigated, the district pursued allegations that Townsel had committed two counts of battery on three juveniles who tried to travel on the Trolley without buying a ticket. The local district attorney issued the charges and the district fired Townsel.

Panel attorney Everett Bobbitt represented Townsel in the criminal trial. After a one-week trial and 10 minutes of deliberation, the jury acquitted Townsel of all charges.

Townsel then asked for an evidentiary hearing before an impartial tribunal and was refused. Instead, the board of directors convened a hearing where Townsel was not allowed to call witnesses on his behalf or to cross-examine witnesses that testified on behalf of the district.

The board of directors appointed three of their own to hear the matter. Townsel was less than surprised to learn that the board upheld his termination.

The Legal Defense Fund authorized Everett Bobbitt to pursue the matter in Superior Court. The Superior Court agreed with the previous decision of the Federal Court and refused to order a meaningful hearing. The Legal Defense Fund then authorized Bobbitt to pursue the matter in the Court of Appeal.

In a unanimous 19-page published decision, the Court of Appeal ordered the district to grant Townsel an evidentiary hearing before an impartial tribunal.

The court said that the 14th Amendment to the United States Constitution “places procedural constraints on the actions of government that work a deprivation of interests enjoying the stature of property within the meaning of the Due Process Clause”.

The court noted that it is not important whether an employee is a “Civil Service” employee. When an employee can only be terminated for cause the employee then has “a constitutionally protected interest in continued employment.” The court further found that the Federal Court decision was not binding on Townsel or the Superior Court of California.

This case should resolve issues similar to Townsels, when a government agency attempts to avoid provided due process by calling their employees something other than “Civil Service” employees.

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