APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, Patrick Marlette, Judge. Affirmed. (Super. Ct. No. 34-2008-80000025-CU-WM-GDS).
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Butz, J.
CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION
The Riverside Sheriffs' Association (RSA), as representative of current and retired Riverside County deputy coroners, appeals from a judgment denying its petition for administrative mandate. (Code Civ. Proc., § 1094.5.) The petition sought to overturn a decision of the Board of Administration of the California Public Employees' Retirement System (the Board) refusing to change the status of the deputy coroners from "miscellaneous" to "local safety members," a classification that would have substantially enhanced their retirement benefits.
The central issue in this case is whether the principal duties and functions of the deputy coroners "clearly" fall within the scope of "active law enforcement" as that term is used in Government Code section 20436, subdivision (a) (hereafter section 20436(a)).*fn1 Both the administrative law judge (ALJ) and the trial court found they did not. We agree and shall affirm the judgment.
This case comes to us on a set of undisputed facts. The ALJ received extensive evidence, upon which he rendered a comprehensive set of factual findings. Both parties and the trial court accepted these findings as true and acknowledge that the issue involves a pure question of law.*fn2
First enacted in 1945, the Public Employees' Retirement Law (PERL) (as it is now referred to; § 20000 et seq.) established the Public Employees' Retirement System (PERS) for certain state and local government employees. (City of Huntington Beach v. Board of Administration (1992) 4 Cal.4th 462, 466 (City of Huntington Beach).) The Board manages and controls the system (§ 20120), makes such rules as it deems proper (§ 20121), and determines who are employees and shall be entitled to receive benefits (§ 20125). PERS members are classified as either "miscellaneous members" or "safety members." (§ 20371.) The latter group generally enjoys enhanced retirement benefits.
A "local safety member" is defined by statute to include local police officers, local sheriffs, firefighters, safety officers, county peace officers, and school safety members employed by the local public agency. (§ 20420, italics added.) The statute that is the center of this controversy, section 20436(a), defines "county peace officer" as follows: "`County peace officer' means the sheriff and any officer or employee of a sheriff's office of a contracting agency, except one whose principal duties are those of a telephone operator, clerk, stenographer, machinist, mechanic, or otherwise, and whose functions do not clearly come within the scope of active law enforcement service even though the employee is subject to occasional call, or is occasionally called upon, to perform duties within the scope of active law enforcement service, but not excepting persons employed and qualifying as deputy sheriffs or equal or higher rank irrespective of the duties to which they are assigned." (Italics added.)
Prior to 2005, the County of Riverside's contract with PERS provided that deputy coroners were miscellaneous members rather than local safety members. In 2005, RSA requested that PERS reclassify deputy coroners as local safety members.
The PERS staff refused the request on the ground that the duties of deputy coroners did not clearly come within the scope of active law enforcement. RSA appealed this determination and the matter was heard before an ALJ who held a plenary evidentiary hearing.
The ALJ issued a proposed decision denying RSA's application to reclassify the deputy coroners. The Board then adopted the ALJ's decision as its own.
RSA filed a petition for writ of administrative mandate in the superior court, seeking to overturn the Board's decision. The trial court determined that the facts set forth in the Board's administrative decision were undisputed and that the only issue was whether the deputy coroners' duties satisfied the requirements of section 20436(a). Addressing the question as one of law, the court ruled that the principal function of the deputy coroners "does not involve the active investigation and suppression of crime, nor does it involve the arrest and detention of criminals." Although it viewed the issue as a "close factual question," the court could not conclude that the deputy coroners engaged in "active law enforcement" within the meaning of section 20436(a). The petition was therefore denied and RSA timely appealed.
The Functions And Duties Of The Deputy Coroners
The factual summary below is drawn from the ALJ's decision, which was ...