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LCW Partner Jennifer Rosner Wins Published POBRA Decision — Unsubstantiated Rumors Do Not Start The One-Year Period For Completing An Internal Investigation
LCW Partner Jennifer Rosner secured an appellate victory in a peace officer termination case. A captain in a sheriff’s department challenged his termination by claiming a violation of the Police Officers Bill of Rights Act’s (POBRA) one-year statute of limitations for conducting an investigation. Jennifer’s victory resulted in a published decision of the California Court of Appeal.
The captain had been a county employee for approximately 22 years. In around April 2016, the chief learned of a rumored intimate relationship involving the captain and a female deputy. On May 20, 2016, the chief learned of another alleged relationship between the captain and a second female deputy. A personnel investigation then revealed the captain had maintained multiple sexual relationships with female employees in violation of department policy and general orders.
On June 3, 2016, the captain received written notice that he was the subject of an administrative internal affairs investigation into allegations that he had inappropriate relationships with other department employees/ subordinates. A detailed report, dated April 10, 2017, sustained allegations of the captain’s improper conduct. That same day, the captain received a notice of intent to terminate, and he was terminated on April 25, 2017.
The captain lost his subsequent administrative appeal and filed a petition for writ in the superior court to overturn his termination. The superior court denied the petition and agreed with the hearing officer’s finding that there was sufficient evidence to substantiate the captain’s misconduct. The court found no POBRA violations.
The captain appealed the superior court’s ruling. On appeal, the captain alleged only that the Department violated his POBRA rights by failing to complete its internal investigation within one year of the discovery of his improper conduct. The POBRA contains a statute of limitations at Government Code section 3304, which states that “no punitive action, nor denial of promotion on grounds other than merit, shall be undertaken for any act, omission, or other allegation of misconduct if the investigation of the allegation is not completed within one year of the public agency’s discovery by a person authorized to initiate an investigation of the allegation of an act, omission, or other misconduct.”
The captain alleged that the chief should have known of his improper conduct earlier because his sexual relationships with subordinates were the subject of the department’s “rumor mill”. The captain claimed, “there were at least a half-dozen supervisors and senior officers who were aware of allegations of misconduct involving [the captain] prior to April 10, 2016, all of whom could have, like [the chief], initiated a complaint inquiry.”
The Court of Appeal rejected this argument and held that the POBRA statute of limitations does not begin based on mere rumors, but only after a department determines that actionable misconduct occurred. Here, the captain failed to: identify a single individual who was “authorized to initiate” an investigation; or demonstrate that the public agency had determined that discipline should be taken prior to May 2016.
The Court of Appeal declined to “promote a policy of launching into the intimidate relationships of public safety officers on the basis of mere rumors.” The Court noted that an internal affairs investigation can have a devastating impact on the career of a public safety officer, and “should only be initiated when the officer authorized to initiate an investigation knows or has reason to know that the conduct involves actionable misconduct” and not “on the basis of unsubstantiated rumors.”
Shouse v. County of Riverside, 84 Cal.App.5th 1080 (2022, rev. denied 2/1/23).