(CN) – Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies who were suspended without pay after being charged with felonies can move forward with due-process claims against their bosses, the 9th Circuit ruled.
The federal appeals panel in Pasadena partially reversed a lower court’s dismissal of the deputies’ lawsuit, finding that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angles County Supervisors denied them a constitutionally required post-suspension hearing.
Deputies Darrin Wilkinson, David Sherr, Lisa Brown Debs and Sean O’Donoghue, all current or former deputies, sued the sheriff’s department, the supervisors and several officials in California’s Central District. All four deputies had previously been charged with a felony, though prosecutors dropped charges against two of them and a jury acquitted two others.
Wilkinson was charged with nine felony counts of falsifying police reports. The charges were later dropped. Debs was charged with felony drunken driving, but the charges were dismissed. A jury acquitted Sherr of seven counts of workers’ compensation insurance fraud, perjury and grand theft. A separate jury found O’Donoghue not guilty of two counts of falsifying a police report, three counts of accessory after the fact to possession of narcotics for sale, one count of perjury and one count of false imprisonment.
While the deputies fought the various charges, the sheriff’s department suspended them without pay. All four plaintiffs then requested post-suspension hearings before the Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, but the requests were “held in abeyance pending completion of the criminal proceedings and disciplinary action by the sheriff’s department,” the ruling states.
Later, after the deputies had proved their innocence but before they had been granted suspension hearings, the sheriff’s department fired them. All four requested hearings to challenge dismissal.
Meantime, Wilkinson and Sherr were both granted disability retirement by the Los Angeles County Employee Retirement System. As a result, the commission ruled that it did not have jurisdiction over retired employees and denied them their requested post-suspension hearings.
Debs and O’Donoghue received post-suspension hearings and, in Deb’s case, the hearing officer recommended reinstating the deputy, finding the felony charges untrue. After the hearing, however, the full commission ruled that Debs’s suspension was proper because a felony charge “whether supported by valid allegations or not, was pending against her at the time the Sheriff’s Department imposed her suspension,” the ruling states. A hearing officer recommended that O’Donoughue be fully reinstated, but the commission ordered a reconsideration that never happened.
The deputies’ subsequent lawsuit against the county of Los Angeles, the Los Angeles County Supervisors, Los Angeles County Civil Service Commissioners and the Los Angeles County sheriff, which was joined by the deputies’ union, alleged violations of their 14th Amendment due-process rights. U.S. District Judge R. Gary Klausne dismissed the case, finding that the deputies had failed to state a claim against the county and that the commissioners were entitled to qualified immunity.
In a 2-1 ruling Friday, the three-judge appellate panel partially reversed, finding that the deputies had stated a valid claim but that the commissioners had immunity.
“Due process requires that an employee suspended solely on the basis that felony charges were filed against him must be granted a post-suspension hearing,” Judge Harry Pregerson wrote for the panel.
“The fact that the commission is precluded from hearing Wilkinson’s and Sherr’s appeals does not remove the county’s constitutional obligation to provide some form of post-suspension hearings,” he added.
While the individual commissioners on the Civil Service Commission were entitled to qualified immunity, “those claims may go forward against the sheriff and the county supervisors, who were constitutionally required to provide post-suspension procedures for suspended deputy sheriffs who later retired,” the panel found.
Writing in partial dissent, Judge Sandra Ikuta argued that Debs and O’Donoghue “did not allege a plausible violation of their due process rights.”
“Both received all the process that was due: they had full hearings before hearing officers after they were suspended, and the Commission ordered both to be reinstated, although it denied backpay on the ground that the suspensions were justified,” Ikuta wrote.