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Disclosing Peace Officer Records Related to Dishonesty Was Protected Activity Under Anti-SLAPP Statute
In 2018, the City of Rio Vista (City) terminated police officer John Collondrez after an investigation found he was dishonest and committed misconduct, including making false reports. Collondrez appealed his termination. Prior to his appeal hearing, the parties reached a settlement. The City agreed to pay $35,000 to Collondrez and he agreed to resign from his employment, effective December 2017. The settlement agreement stated that the City would maintain all disciplinary notices and investigation materials related to Collondrez’s employment in his personnel file and that those records would only be released as required by law or court order. The agreement also stated the City would notify Collondrez of any request to release his personnel records.
In January 2019, the City received a number of media requests under the California Public Records Act (CPRA) for records related to Collondrez’s disciplinary action. The City produced responsive records from Collondrez’s personnel file and gave him prior notice of some, but not all of the disclosures. The media then reported information from the disclosed records, and Collondrez’s subsequent employer (Uber) terminated his employment in February 2019 in light of his prior misconduct.
Collondrez then sued the City and Police Chief Dan Dailey for breach of contract, invasion of privacy, interference with prospective economic advantage, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. The City moved to strike the complaint under California’s anti-SLAPP statute, on the grounds that it was required to disclose Collondrez’s records pursuant to Penal Code section 832.7 and the CPRA.
A court examines an anti-SLAPP motion, which allows for the early dismissal of a case that thwarts constitutionally-protected speech, in two parts: (i) whether a defendant has shown the challenged cause of action arises from protected activity; and (ii) whether the plaintiff has demonstrated a probability of prevailing on the claim. Under this framework, the trial court granted the City’s motion to strike in part, finding that Collondrez had shown a probability of prevailing on his causes of action for breach of contract and invasion of privacy, but not on his other two causes of action. Both parties appealed, and the California Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part.
As to the first element of the anti-SLAPP framework, Collondrez argued on appeal that his causes of action did not arise from protected activity because the essence of his complaint was not the release of his personnel information, but rather the City’s failure to give him pre-release notice of disclosure in accordance with the settlement agreement. The Court of Appeal disagreed, holding that the complaint arose from the protected speech, namely, the City’s release of Collondrez’s personnel information to media outlets.
As to the second element, the Court of Appeal held Collondrez failed to show a probability of prevailing on the merits of any cause of action against the City because the City was compelled to produce his personnel information regarding any “sustained findings” of officer dishonesty pursuant to Penal Code section 832.7 and the CPRA. Notably, the Court of Appeal disagreed with Collondrez’s argument that the settlement agreement meant that there was no “sustained finding” of officer dishonesty against him and that therefore, the City was not compelled to disclose his records. The Court of Appeal found that a “sustained finding” is established when an officer has had the opportunity to appeal, and not solely when an appeal is actually completed. Collondrez was provided the opportunity to appeal his termination, and therefore his records concerned a “sustained finding” of dishonesty and were properly disclosed as required by the CPRA requests.
Since Collondrez’s entire complaint against the City was based on a claim of wrongful disclosure of his records, the Court of Appeal held the City’s anti-SLAPP motion should have been granted in full and decided in favor of the City.
Collondrez v. City of Rio Vista, 2021 WL 973420 (Cal. At. App., Mar. 16, 2021).
Anti-SLAPP motions are a powerful tool for the early dismissal of lawsuits involving issues of protected speech. This case affirms that the disclosure of peace officer records pursuant to a CPRA request is protected speech that can be protected under the anti-SLAPP statute. This case is important because the Court of Appeal held that a “sustained finding” of dishonesty that triggers a CPRA disclosure is established when an officer has had the opportunity to appeal, and not solely when an appeal is actually completed. As a result, a settlement agreement that is completed after the officer has an opportunity to appeal discipline does not prevent the discovery of certain peace officer records.