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County of Los Angeles Dep't of Health Services v. Civil Service Commission of the County of Los Angeles

December 18, 2009


APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, David P. Yaffe, Judge. Affirmed. (Los Angeles County Super. Ct. No. BS109740).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Rubin, Acting P. J.


This appeal presents a single question of law for our determination: Where civil service rules vest a civil service commission with jurisdiction over an employee's appeal of her discharge, including an attendant claim for a resulting loss of pay, does the employee's retirement during the pendency of civil service proceedings divest the commission of jurisdiction over the civil service appeal? Taking our lead from the opinion in Zuniga v. Los Angeles Civil Service Com. (2006) 137 Cal.App.4th 1255, we answer the question "yes."


In 1972, the County of Los Angeles Department of Health Services (the Department) hired Margaret Latham as a staff nurse. By 1998, the Department had promoted Latham through the ranks to an administrative position as an assistant nursing director, where she oversaw the Nursing Resource Center. In that position, Latham had responsibilities over staffing and budgeting matters, collective bargaining, employee personnel issues, nursing practice standards, workload statistics, and performance improvement activities. As required by regulations governing patient care, the Department, under Latham's supervision, operated a patient classification system to assign "acuity" numbers to patients to determine and coordinate required levels of care and staffing.*fn1

On January 23, 2004, the Department suspended Latham without pay, pending an investigation into allegations of "inappropriate activity in connection with the reporting of patient acuity levels." On February 22, 2004, the Department reassigned Latham to "work at home." In March 2004, the Department informed Latham by letter that it had affirmed its decision to suspend her without pay for the period from January 23, 2004, through February 21, 2004.

On July 20, 2004, the Department notified Latham of its intent to discharge her. By letter dated September 14, 2004, the Department notified Latham that she would be discharged effective September 20, 2004.

On a date uncertain, Latham filed an appeal with the Civil Service Commission of the County of Los Angeles (the Commission), challenging two employment actions taken by the Department: (1) the initial decision of January 23, 2004, suspending her without pay for 30 days pending an investigation, and (2) the final decision of September 20, 2004, discharging her from the Department.

In November 2005, a hearing officer assigned by the Commission began receiving evidence on Latham's civil service appeal.

Six months later, on May 16, 2006, before the Commission hearing officer issued a decision on Latham's civil service appeal, Latham voluntarily retired. Latham did not advise either the Commission or the Department of her retirement, and, on July 28, and August 31, 2006, the Commission hearing officer concluded the hearing.

On September 28, 2006, the Commission's hearing officer issued an extensive, 27-page report in Latham's civil service appeal. Broadly summarized, the hearing officer's report included a series of factual findings regarding various omissions and errors by Latham, and/or the staff which she oversaw, primarily connected with the Department's classification system. Despite these factual findings, the hearing officer concluded as matters of law that (1) the Department had wrongly suspended Latham for 30 days without pay pending its initial investigation because her errors and omissions had not presented any "emergency circumstances" justifying a pre-investigation suspension; (2) the Department's evidence did not show that discharge was the appropriate discipline for her errors; and (3) the Department's evidence showed that the appropriate discipline for Latham's errors was a 30-day suspension.

As of February 12, 2007, Latham's appeal was still pending before the full Commission. On that date, the Department delivered a letter motion to the Commission, requesting that it "immediately dismiss" Latham's appeal on the ground that the Commission had lost jurisdiction over the matter. According to the Department's letter, Latham's retirement had recently come to its attention, and her intervening retirement meant that any further proceedings by the Commission would be "meaningless" because Latham could not be reinstated once she had retired.*fn2

On April 11, 2007, the Commission issued its final opinion, rejecting the dismissal request and largely adopting its hearing officer's report. The ultimate decision imposed a reduction in rank, not suspension.

On July 3, 2007, the Department filed in superior court a petition for writ of administrative mandamus challenging the Commission's decision. The Department's petition sought a writ commanding the Commission to vacate its decision on Latham's civil service appeal, and then to dismiss her appeal on the ground that her retirement had ...

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