Employee Who Took A Voluntary Demotion To Avoid Future Discipline Was Not Entitled To Skelly Hearing

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Jun 04, 2024

June LaMarr was a Medical Office Services Coordinator Level V at UC Davis Medical Center’s Cancer Center (Cancer Center) in 2014. LaMarr’s supervisor, Walter Knowles, suspended her for three days in July 2014 for performance issues. Her performance issues continued after her suspension. In August 2014, Knowles prepared, but did not issue, a Letter of Intent to Dismiss LaMarr. Knowles’s supervisor, Chris Jackson, was concerned by what he perceived to be an unusually expedited discipline procedure. LaMarr also told Jackson that she was having difficulties with Knowles.

Jackson attempted to defuse the situation by giving LaMarr the option to transfer to a different department. There was a Coordinator Level III position available at another department, the MIND Institute (Institute), but there were no Coordinator Level V positions available. Jackson told LaMarr that she could transfer to the Institute on a temporary basis at her normal Coordinator Level V salary. He did not inform her that Knowles had drafted a Letter of Intent to Dismiss. LaMarr accepted the temporary transfer.

Between February and March 2015, Jackson and LaMarr exchanged emails about LaMarr’s position at the Institute. Jackson confirmed that the Institute was comfortable making LaMarr’s role permanent. On March 10, 2015, Jackson emailed LaMarr and explained that if she stayed at the Institute permanently, she would be a coordinator level III with a lower salary. Jackson told LaMarr that she had three options: (1) remain at the Institute as a Coordinator Level III with a maximum wage of $25.49 per hour; (2) move back to the Cancer Center as a Coordinator Level III with a maximum wage of $25.49 per hour; or (3) move back to the Cancer Center as a Coordinator Level V (a supervisory position), but added that she would “be subject to the pending action that was put on hold during this trial period.” LaMarr told Jackson that she was surprised to learn that there was a pending action against her and had not received any documentation regarding the pending discipline. On March 16, 2015, LaMarr emailed Jackson saying that she chose to remain at the Institute. She stated that she would love to remain at the Cancer Center but could not return to a “hostile environment” where every decision she made could be questioned or grounds for discipline.

The California Supreme Court ruled in Skelly that permanent public employees have a property interest in continued employment that must be protected by due process. Before an employer can subject an employee to an adverse employment action, due process requires that the employer: (1) notify the employee of the proposed action and reasons for the action, (2) provide a copy of the charges and materials that the action is based upon, and (3) give the employee a Skelly hearing, which is an opportunity to respond either orally or in writing to the authority imposing the discipline. An adverse employment action includes dismissal, demotion, suspension, or other disciplinary action.

LaMarr sued the Regents of the University of California (Regents, which includes UC Davis). She argued that the Regents violated her due process rights by not giving her a Skelly hearing prior to her demotion. The trial court found that the Regents did not deprive LaMarr of due process when, without offering LaMarr a Skelly hearing, Jackson told her she had to choose between (1) a demotion or (2) returning to a higher paying supervisory position but facing possible termination proceedings. LaMarr appealed to the trial court’s decision.

The court of appeal agreed with the trial court. The court of appeal found LaMarr’s new permanent position at the Institute was a demotion, which is an adverse result. However, her demotion did not violate due process because it was voluntary. The court of appeal acknowledged that LaMarr faced a difficult choice but that did not make it an involuntary choice. The court of appeal explained that a government employer does not violate due process until it takes an adverse action without providing the Skelly safeguards. Here, the demotion was voluntary. LaMarr would be entitled to a Skelly hearing if Knowles issued the letter of intent to dismiss. However, he had not yet issued the letter and she was not entitled to a Skelly hearing before the employer issued it. The court of appeal noted that it was LaMarr’s prerogative to either risk termination and receive a Skelly hearing, or voluntarily accept the demotion and not have a Skelly hearing. The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s judgment.

LaMarr v. Regents of University of California (2024) 101 Cal.App.5th 671.

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