WORK WITH US
At-Will Police Chief’s Employment Agreement Gave Him A Right To An Evidentiary Administrative Appeal
In November 2016, Samuel Joseph became the chief of police for the City of Atwater (City). Joseph’s employment agreement stated he could be removed as police chief for any reason. The agreement also said that if the City Manager removed Joseph as police chief for any reason other than willful misconduct in office or conviction of a crime of moral turpitude, Joseph would be given the option to either: return to his prior position of police lieutenant; or receive a severance.
On September 28, 2018, the City Manager issued a notice of intent to terminate Joseph for “willful and other misconduct,” including violations of multiple sections of the California Penal Code and other mismanagement issues. The notice also described Joseph’s right to appeal the termination decision in a non-evidentiary hearing with no right of cross-examination, and the City was not required to carry the burden of proving the charges.
On October 4, 2018, Joseph’s attorney notified the City that Joseph would appeal the proposed termination. The attorney objected to the appeal procedure outlined in the City’s notice. Joseph’s attorney claimed that Joseph was entitled to an evidentiary appeal in which the City had the burden of proving the charges and he had the right to cross-examination before a neutral hearing officer.
After further correspondence, Joseph and the City were unable to agree on the type of hearing required by the Peace Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act (POBR). The City Manager then issued Joseph a final notice of termination on November 15, 2018.
Joseph filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate challenging the City’s decision to terminate his employment. The trial court denied the petition, concluding that Joseph was an at-will employee under his employment agreement. The trial court further found that the City satisfied the statutory requirement of providing Joseph with an opportunity for administrative appeal as required under the POBR for at-will employees under Government Code Section 3304(c).
Joseph appealed, alleging the trial court wrongly considered him as an at-will employee for all purposes because his employment agreement gave him a right to return to the position of lieutenant if his termination was without cause. The Court of Appeal agreed, finding that the employment agreement unambiguously created a hybrid employment relationship between the City and Joseph. Although Joseph’s employment as chief of police was at-will, his employment as a lieutenant could only be terminated for cause. The Court interpreted Joseph’s contract to mean that City’s right to terminate Joseph’s employment as a lieutenant was limited to the specified reasons—that is, willful misconduct or conviction of a crime of moral turpitude — which necessitated Joseph receive certain procedural protections. The Court found that this contractual limitation on City’s right to terminate Joseph’s overall employment was more specific than the sentence stating Joseph was an at-will employee. Therefore, the Court found that the employment agreement gave Joseph the right to for-cause procedural protections if the City chose to terminate him for willful misconduct.
Joseph further alleged the City’s decision to terminate his employment for willful misconduct deprived him of his right to employment as a lieutenant without affording him POBR procedural rights. Again, the Court of Appeal agreed. Because Joseph was also being terminated from his for-cause position as a lieutenant, he was entitled to a full, evidentiary administrative appeal pursuant to Government Code Section 3304(b). Since the appellate record did not contain any rules and procedures for such an appeal, the Court of Appeal considered the scope of the required procedural protections for a for-cause peace officer.
The Court of Appeal held that an evidentiary POBR administrative appeal required: 1) an independent reexamination of the decision; 2) by a decisionmaker who was not involved in the initial determination; 3) the independent decision-maker is to make factual findings to bridge the analytical gap between the evidence and the ultimate decision; 4) the hearing is treated as a de novo proceeding at which no facts are taken as established; and 5) the proponent of a particular fact bears the burden of establishing it, and 6) the hearing could not be closed to the public over an officer’s objection.
Based on the foregoing, the Court of Appeal reversed the trial court’s order denying Joseph’s petition for writ of mandate and directed the trial court to issue a writ of mandate directing the City to provide Joseph with an opportunity for an administrative appeal that complied with the minimum POBR procedural protections the Court outlined.
Joseph v. City of Atwater, 2022 WL 391821 (Cal. Ct. App. Feb. 9, 2022).
This case illustrates how critically important the terms of an employment agreement can be. Although the employment agreement stated that Joseph’s employment as police chief was at will, the Court found that the employment agreement gave Joseph the right to for-cause procedural protections if the City chose to terminate him for willful misconduct.