Ninth Circuit Sends Officers’ Challenge To Their Discipline Back To State Court

CATEGORY: Fire Watch, Law Enforcement Briefing Room
CLIENT TYPE: Public Safety
DATE: Sep 07, 2022

In March 2018, five City of Oakland police officers were involved in the fatal shooting of a homeless man.  The Oakland Police Department (Department), the Chief of Police, and the Community Police Review Agency (CPRA) of the City’s civilian oversight Police Commission, all investigated the incident and concluded that the officer’s use of force was reasonable and complied with the Department policy.  The Compliance Director (an independent arm of the Department with limited oversight), disagreed with the previous assessments and recommended the termination of the officers for unreasonable use of force.  This disagreement caused the Commission to convene a “Discipline Committee.”  Following its review, the Discipline Committee agreed with the Compliance Director and directed termination.  The City terminated the officers.

The officers sought a writ of mandate and declaratory relief in state court.  They alleged that the City and the Commission violated their obligations under the City’s Charter, the municipal code, and state law by assembling the Discipline Committee despite the consensus between the CPRA and the Department.  They contended that their use of force was in fact reasonable.  The City removed the case to federal court, invoking federal question jurisdiction under 28 U.S.C. § 1331.  The U.S. District Court ultimately ruled in favor of the City, and the officers timely appealed.

On appeal, the Ninth Circuit declined to review the merits of the judgment because it did not have subject matter jurisdiction and had no authority to decide the case.  The Ninth Circuit reached this conclusion after considering the law and the facts.

Under 28 U.S.C. § 1331, federal courts have subject matter jurisdiction over a civil case in only two categories.  The first occurs when a claim in the case is based on federal law. The second occurs when a federal issue is: 1) necessarily raised; 2) disputed; 3) substantial; and 4) capable of resolution in federal court without disrupting the federal-state balance that Congress has approved.  The Ninth Circuit determined it did not have either type of jurisdiction.

Regarding the first category, the officers did not allege any federal law cause of action.  Rather, they asserted only state law causes of action.  The City argued that it would defend itself in the case based on a federal court’s Consent Decree regarding the department’s operations.  The Ninth Circuit found that the Consent Decree did not create the officers’ claims.  The Court noted that a state law claim may not be removed to federal court based on a federal defense.

Regarding the second category of subject matter jurisdiction, the Court applied similar reasoning because the officers’ claims did not “necessarily” raise a federal issue.  The officers were not directly attacking the federal district court’s Consent Decree.  Rather, they claimed the City violated its Charter and the Municipal Code by assembling the Discipline Committee.

The Court identified a potential federal issue involving how to resolve any alleged conflict between the Consent Decree and the Charter.  The Court reasoned this was not an issue that is “necessarily raised” because it was not an “essential element” of any of the officers’ claims. At most, it is a federal issue that may arise as a potential defense. And as noted above, a federal defense alone is not a basis to remove to federal court.

For the reasons above, the Ninth Circuit vacated the district court’s order and remanded the case back to state court.

Negrete v. City of Oakland, 2022 WL 3570604 (9th Circuit).

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