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Siskiyou County v. State Personnel Board

October 7, 2010

SISKIYOU COUNTY, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
STATE PERSONNEL BOARD, DEFENDANT AND RESPONDENT,
RAEGAN DUNCAN, REAL PARTY IN INTEREST AND APPELLANT.



APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Siskiyou County, Laura Masunaga, Judge. Reversed. (Super.Ct.No. SCCVPT0900601).

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Scotland, Acting P. J.*fn2

CERTIFIED FOR PUBLICATION

This case illustrates the limited role that a judge has in reviewing a decision of the State Personnel Board regarding what employment consequence is appropriate when a public employee engages in misconduct that causes discredit to a public agency and exposes the agency to civil liability.

Raegan Duncan, an employee of the Siskiyou County Department of Human Services (DHS), was acquainted with a father who was in the midst of a contested court proceeding over whether his children should be placed in his custody or with their mother. To help her friend, Duncan submitted a declaration in the court proceeding, stating the father is an excellent parent who "unquestionably should have sole custody of his children with supervised visits given to the mother." Referring to him as her "client," the declaration represented that Duncan's opinion was based on her contacts with the father due to her employment, including "home visits" she made to his residence as part of her duties with DHS. Her declaration ended by noting the father "is the rare client/person that makes my job fulfilling."

Actually, Duncan was not employed with the child protective services division of DHS, and her duties as a public employee did not include conducting home visits to evaluate parental fitness. Rather, she assessed the eligibility of applicants for public assistance programs and services.

The misrepresentation in Duncan's declaration came to the attention of DHS when the mother in the contested child custody dispute filed a formal compliant regarding the declaration.

When confronted about the declaration, Duncan was dismissive of DHS's concerns. Stating, "Hell I fully believe that I didn't do anything wrong," Duncan complained, "what the phuck?" and protested she was "get[ting] screwed" for doing "something nice."

Concluding Duncan's declaration was dishonest and constituted conduct that was "unbecoming" of public service and caused discredit to the agency, DHS terminated her employment.

Duncan appealed to the State Personnel Board. While it did not find that Duncan was intentionally dishonest, the Board found that Duncan wrongly implied she "was rendering a professional assessment in her capacity as a [DHS] employee," improperly risked influencing a court's decision in a matter that could affect the health and safety of children, and exposed DHS to potential liability. Citing mitigating facts, the Board ruled that the termination of Duncan's employment was excessive, and that the appropriate consequence was a two-month suspension, which would be sufficient to alert her to the seriousness of her misconduct.

By petition for writ of administrative mandamus, the employer challenged the State Personnel Board's ruling. The superior court held that the Board abused its discretion by reducing the penalty from termination of employment to a two-month suspension. Duncan then appealed to this court.

As we will explain, it is immaterial how a superior court judge or we would have ruled if serving as a member of the State Personnel Board. In reviewing the Board's determination of the proper penalty to be imposed for misconduct of an public employee, a judge's role is simply to decide whether the Board abused its discretion, i.e., acted arbitrarily, capriciously, or beyond the bounds of reason. If reasonable minds might differ on the appropriate degree of the penalty, a judge cannot substitute his or her judgment for that of the Board.

Here, the superior court held that Duncan's misrepresentation of her public position was a calculated, dishonest effort to help a friend in a court proceeding, and that such dishonesty calls for termination of her employment, regardless of how well-meaning her intentions were and despite the fact she had not engaged in prior misconduct. Simply stated, the court found that termination of employment was the appropriate penalty because the facts established that Duncan was dishonest, and such dishonesty by a public employee is intolerable.

Had the State Personnel Board upheld the termination of Duncan's employment, we would affirm the decision because it cannot be said that the penalty would be arbitrary, capricious, or beyond the bounds of reason under the circumstances of this case. However, the Board concluded otherwise, declining to find that Duncan was intentionally dishonest, and holding a two-month suspension was the appropriate consequence. This, too, is a decision that a reasonable person could make under the circumstances.

Thus, while we commend the superior court for the diligence it displayed in crafting its six-page ruling, we shall reverse the judgment and direct the court to enter a new judgment, denying the county's petition for writ of administrative mandamus.

FACTS AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

DHS performs social service functions, including employment and temporary assistance services (ETAS) and child protective services (CPS), for the County of Siskiyou (the County). Duncan was employed as an eligibility worker in the ETAS division. Because she was not employed in the CPS division, her responsibilities did not include home visits to evaluate parental fitness. Rather, her duties as an eligibility worker included interviewing applicants for public assistance programs and services, determining their eligibility, and preparing and processing related documents. ETAS eligibility workers rarely make home visits and need approval of a supervisor before doing so. Duncan was trained on the limited purpose of a home visit, namely, to determine nothing more than eligibility for public assistance programs.

DHS's disciplinary action against her stemmed from a declaration that Duncan submitted on behalf of Timothy M. in a superior court child custody proceeding. Duncan was acquainted with him through a close friend of hers, with whom Timothy M. shared a residence. Duncan also knew him ...


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