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CA Supreme Court Case Permits Use of Pitchess Motions in Administrative Disciplinary Appeals

Client Alert

Summary

On December 1, 2014, the California Supreme Court held, in Riverside County Sheriff’s Department v. Stiglitz,et al. (Stiglitz), that a hearing officer in an administrative appeal of discipline of a correctional officer has the authority to rule upon a discovery motion for peace officer personnel records, commonly referred to as a Pitchess motion.  As to a prior decision in Brown v. Valverde, (2010) 183 Cal.App.4th 1531, which held that only judicial officers may rule on a Pitchess motion, the Supreme Court limited the application of that ruling in limited circumstances.

Facts

In Stiglitz, Kristy Drinkwater was terminated from her position as a correctional deputy at the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (the Department) for falsifying her payroll forms. Drinkwater appealed her termination pursuant to a memorandum of understanding (MOU) between the Riverside Sherriff’s Association and the County that provided for an administrative appeal.  Drinkwater presented a disparate treatment claim, arguing that her termination was disproportionate to her misconduct because other Department employees who had falsified time records received lesser punishments.  At her administrative appeal, hearing officer Jan Stiglitz heard Drinkwater’s motion for discovery of disciplinary records of other Department personnel who had been investigated or disciplined for similar misconduct.  Under the Pitchess motion, Stiglitz clarified that the impetus was on Drinkwater to present the names of other Department personnel and not on the Department to search its records for similar disciplinary cases.  After identifying specific employees whose records were sought, Stiglitz found that good cause existed and granted Drinkwater’s Pitchess motion.

The Department filed a petition for a writ of administrative mandate seeking to compel Stiglitz to vacate his decision.  The superior court agreed and ordered Stiglitz to reverse the prior order. Subsequently, a new hearing was ordered after the Sheriff’s Department intervened and requested a new hearing.  A new hearing was conducted and the superior court denied Drinkwater’s discovery motion again.  The superior court granted the department’s mandate petition denying the Pitchess motion.  Drinkwater and the Sheriff’s Association sought review and the Court of Appeals reversed the superior court’s finding that Pitchess motions could only be ruled on in the superior court.  The Supreme Court granted review of the case. 

Pitchess Motions and Administrative Hearings

The California Supreme Court held that a Pitchess motion can be filed with an appropriate administrative body pursuant to Evidence Code section 1043 and that the Legislature intended to allow administrative hearing officers to decide such motions without court intervention.

Evidence Code section 1043(a) reads in part:  “In any case which discovery or disclosure is sought of peace or custodial officer personnel records…, the party seeking the discovery or disclosure shall file a written motion with the appropriate court or administrative body…”  The Supreme Court interpreted this language to mean that Pitchess motions may be filed in the appropriate court or administrative body.  Under Evidence Code section 1043, an applicant must make an initial showing of good cause to begin the discovery process.

Once good cause is shown, Evidence Code section 1045 dictates the conduct of the resulting hearing in camera.  The Department argued that Evidence Code section 1045 repeatedly refers to the court as the entity that must preside over an in camera review, so the references to the court in Evidence Code section 1045 should outweigh the reference to the administrative body in Evidence Code section 1043.  The Supreme Court reviewed the language of Evidence Code section 1045 and reasoned that if the legislature intended for review to be handled only by a court, then that section would have included a transfer mechanism from an administrative body to the court.  The Supreme Court concluded that the lack of a transfer mechanism demonstrates that administrative officers can rule on Pitchess motions without such transfer.

Furthermore, the Supreme Court distinguished Brown, supra, from Stiglitz, based on the balancing of a litigant’s discovery interest with an officer’s confidentiality interest.  In Brown, the Fourth Appellate District excluded Pitchess discovery from a Department of Motor Vehicle administrative hearing where a hearing officer determined whether a driver’s license must be suspended following an arrest for driving with a blood alcohol level above the legal limit.  Allowing a Pitchess motion in that specific proceeding would frustrate the legislative intent to quickly remove unsafe drivers from the road through an administrative procedure.  Whereas in Stiglitz, the Department acknowledged the discovery Drinkwater requested was relevant to her disparate treatment claim and did not call into question the credibility of officers whose personnel records were requested for review.  The Supreme Court found that confidentiality safeguards were in place in Stiglitz because the personnel files were not subject to public disclosure.  The Supreme Court further added that the analysis must evaluate whether the records being reviewed can be obtained from other records maintained by the employing agency in the regular course of agency business.

The Effect on the Agency

Pitchess motions can be brought at an administrative hearing when relevant, and if good cause is found, the personnel files of peace officers might be subject to review by an administrative hearing officer.  To protect the privacy rights for those officers in their personnel information, the employer should always request that files be reviewed in camera and a protective order be issued preventing use of that information in any other proceeding or manner.

 

For further information, please contact Colin Tanner, Glen Tucker, or Pam Lee of Aleshire & Wynder at (949) 223-1170.

Disclaimer:  Aleshire & Wynder, LLP legal alerts are not intended as legal advice.  Additional facts or future developments may affect subjects contained herein.  Please seek legal advice before acting or relying upon any information in this communication.