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Sheriff’s Department Lawfully Terminated Probationary Deputy Sheriff
In January 2015, the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department hired David Amezcua as a Deputy Sheriff Generalist. The Department placed him on a 12-month probationary period pursuant to the County’s Civil Service Rules. Under those rules, the probationary period cannot be less than six months nor more than 12 months. However, the rules also provide that if an employee is absent during the probationary period, the appointing power can calculate the probationary period on the basis of actual service, exclusive of the time away. Determining when the probationary period ends is important because an employee on probation can be terminated without a hearing, but a permanent employee cannot.
In July 2015, Amezcua became the subject of an administrative investigation. A female inmate at the detention center where he worked complained that he had asked her inappropriate personal questions and expressed a desire to have a relationship with her. A few days later, the Department placed Amezcua on Relieved of Duty status.
In August 2015, the Department sent Amezcua a letter notifying him that his probationary period was being extended because he had been absent as a result of his Relieved of Duty status.
On July 18, 2016, even though the administrative investigation was deemed unresolved, the Department terminated Amezcua without a hearing. The Department concluded that Amezcua had a “propensity to engage in inappropriate communication with inmates, lack of attention to safety, unethical conduct, and poor judgment.” Amezcua filed an appeal of his termination with the Civil Service Commission, but the Commission denied his appeal. Amezcua subsequently filed an amended appeal, which the Commission again denied.
Amezcua then petitioned the superior court to review the Commission’s denial of his appeal. Amezcua alleged that the Department violated the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights Act by denying him an administrative appeal. Amezcua argued that he was never absent from duty and that his firing as a probationary employee was improper because he became a permanent employee in January 2016, that is, 12 months from the date of his hire. The superior court denied Amezcua’s petition, finding that “there should be no dispute that [Amezcua] was absent from duty when he was on relieved on-duty status.” Thus, the Department was entitled to extend his probationary period and terminate him without a hearing. Amezcua appealed.
First, Amezcua argued to the California Court of Appeal that the Department was not authorized to extend his probationary period. The Court of Appeal rejected this argument and found that the plain words of the County rules permit the “appointing power,” in this case, the Department, to “calculate the probationary period on the basis of actual service exclusive of time away.”
Second, Amezcua argued that because he was paid while on Relieved of Duty status, the Department could not exclude this time from his probationary period. Once again, the court disagreed, concluding that the rules made no reference as to whether his absence was paid or unpaid.
Finally, Amezcua argued that he was engaged in the duties of a deputy sheriff while he was on Relieved of Duty status, and thus was not absent from duty. However, Amezcua was not able to describe what, if any, duties he performed while on Relieved of Duty status.
Accordingly, the Court of Appeal concluded the superior court was right to deny Amezcua’s petition. Amezcua was a probationary employee at the time of his termination, and not entitled to a hearing to challenge the discipline.
Amezcua v. Los Angeles County Civil Service Commission, 2019 WL 7597626 (2019).
Public agencies do not need a cause to release employees during the probationary period. As a result, public agencies should carefully track the length of a probationary period. This case approved a rule that excluded leave time from the probationary period. That provision helps ensure that your agency has the benefit of the entire probationary period to evaluate the employee.