Trial Court: Monterey County Superior Court Trial Judge: Honorable Lydia Villarreal (Monterey County Super. Ct. Nos. M88730, M96271)
The opinion of the court was delivered by: Mihara, J.
CERTIFIED FOR PARTIAL PUBLICATION*fn1
Appellants Gail Lawrence and Sharon Culver sought a writ of administrative mandamus (Code Civ. Proc., § 1085) in the trial court to compel their former employer, respondent Hartnell Community College District (the District), to reinstate them as executive assistants to the District's superintendent/president or alternatively, to conduct hearings on the propriety of their "demotions, involuntary transfers, and terminations." The court denied the petition, and appellants challenge that decision on appeal.
Appellants contend the court erred when it determined that their temporary reassignments were not "demotions" (Ed. Code, § 88001, subd. (d)),*fn2 and their eventual separations from employment were not terminations "for cause" (§ 88001, subd. (h)). We reject their contentions.
I. Factual and Procedural Background
Appellants were nonunion permanent classified*fn3 employees of the District who worked as executive assistants to long-time superintendent/president Dr. Edward Valeau. Dr. Valeau resigned at the end of June 2007, and Dr. Phoebe Helm became interim superintendent/president.
She faced a challenging situation: The college was in imminent danger of losing its accreditation. "It was basically on probation because it had failed almost every standard. And so there were seven recommendations and two concerns that had to be corrected" in a relatively short time. "There were over 800 courses that needed to be reviewed . . . ," a task that would require "an extraordinary effort on the part of the faculty." Other issues required action by the board of trustees: "moving forward with an ethics statement and with a sanctions process . . . ." Implementation of shared governance was another issue. The entire process was complicated by a history of "significant tension or animosity" between the administration and the board and the fact that four of the seven board seats would be up for election that November.
Needing "to align the personnel to be able to accomplish the job" and wanting to begin "with a clean slate," Dr. Helm made various personnel changes. Those changes included reassigning appellants, effective July 25, 2007, to equivalent positions assisting the vice-presidents of academic affairs and student services. The assistants to those vice-presidents' who "worked in offices that mattered significantly in terms of the kind of content that the president's office would need in order to fully lead the accreditation process," were moved into the office of the superintendent/president.
The reassignments did not affect appellants' job classifications, titles, wages, or benefits. It was made clear to all involved that the reassignments were not performance-related. It was also made clear that the moves were temporary and that all four reassignments would be reassessed in February 2008.
Appellants never reported to their new assignments. Instead, they obtained doctors' notes stating without qualification that they were unable to return to work. Notwithstanding the unqualified nature of their doctors' notes, however, appellants informed the District that they were at all times available to return to their former jobs in the office of the superintendent/president.
The District held appellants' new jobs open for more than five months. On December 21, 2007, the District informed appellants in writing that their entitlement to paid leave would be exhausted "as of January 9, 2008," that their most recent doctors' notes extended their "unable to work" status beyond that date, and that they would be released from employment and placed on the 39-month reemployment list unless they obtained written releases from their doctors and returned to work before January 9, 2008.
Appellants never submitted medical releases and never returned to work. On January 8, 2008, the District's board of trustees approved appellants' separations from employment and placed them on the 39-month reemployment list (§ 88195).
Appellants obtained a right-to-sue letter from the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and sued the District on January 23, 2008.*fn4 A year later, claiming they had been "demoted" without notice and hearings and then terminated "for cause," appellants petitioned for a writ of administrative mandamus in the trial court to compel the District to reinstate them to their former positions or alternatively, to conduct hearings on the propriety of their "demotions, involuntary transfers, and terminations." The parties stipulated to consolidate the actions for a bifurcated trial, with the writ petition issues to be tried first.
After a bench trial, the court denied the petition. The court concluded that since neither appellant had been reassigned to an "inferior position or status," the reassignments were not "demotions" (§ 88001, subd. (d)) or "disciplinary actions" (§ 88001, subd. (e)) triggering notice and hearing rights under section 88013, subdivision (c). Nor did the reassignments offend due process, because appellants enjoyed no property rights in their specific former assignments.
The court determined that appellants "were not terminated for cause, but because of their inability (per doctor notices) to return to work and all accrued sick leave had been exhausted." "While the motion before the Hartnell Board stated that the petitioners were terminated because of 'the inability, abandonment, and/or refusal to resume' their duties, actually, the Petitioners had 'abandoned and/or refused to resume' their newly assigned duties long before January 8, 200, and the Court so finds." The court concluded that because appellants' separations from employment were not "for cause," they were not "[d]isciplinary action[s]" (§ 88001, subd. (e)) triggering notice and hearing rights under section 88013, subdivision (c).
After a posttrial hearing on the remaining causes of action,*fn5 the court entered judgment for the District. Appellants filed a timely notice of appeal.
"In reviewing a trial court's judgment on a petition for writ of ordinary mandate, we apply the substantial evidence test to the trial court's factual findings." (Kreeft v. City of Oakland (1998) 68 Cal.App.4th 46, 53 (Kreeft). Under the substantial evidence test, " ' "[w]e must resolve all evidentiary conflicts and draw all legitimate and reasonable inferences in favor of the trial court's decision. [Citations.] Where the evidence supports more than one inference, we may not substitute our deductions for the trial court's. [Citation.] We may overturn the trial court's factual findings only if the evidence before the trial court is insufficient as a matter of law to sustain those findings. [Citation.]" ' " (Lake v. Reed (1997) 16 Cal.4th 448, 457 (Lake).) "[W]e exercise our independent judgment on legal issues, such as the interpretation of statutory . . . provisions." (Kreeft, at p. 53.)
In this case we are called upon to interpret certain definitions in the Education Code. " 'The goal of statutory construction is to ascertain and effectuate the intent of the Legislature. [Citation.] Ordinarily, the words of the statute provide the most reliable indication of legislative intent. [Citation.] When the statutory language is ambiguous, the court may examine the context in which the language appears, adopting the construction that best harmonizes the statute internally and with related statutes. [Citations.]' [Citation.] ' "When the language is susceptible of more than one reasonable interpretation . . . , we look to a variety of extrinsic aids, including the ostensible objects to be achieved, the evils to be remedied, the legislative history, public policy, contemporaneous administrative construction, and the statutory scheme of which the statute is a part." ' [Citation.]" (People v. Jefferson (1999) 21 Cal.4th 86, 94 (Jefferson).) "Using these extrinsic aids, we 'select the construction that comports most closely with the apparent intent of the Legislature, with a view to promoting rather than defeating the general purpose of the statute, and avoid an interpretation that would lead to absurd consequences.' " (People v. Sinohui (2002) 28 Cal.4th 205, 211-212.)
B. The Temporary Reassignments Were Not "Demotions"
"At the heart of this case," appellants contend, is the trial court's too narrow construction of section 88001, which states, in subsection (d), that " 'Demotion' means assignment to an inferior position or status without the employee's written voluntary consent." (§ 88001, subd. (d).) They claim the court erred in determining that their temporary reassignments "did not constitute 'demotions'--notwithstanding its simultaneous finding that the new positions conferred less 'prestige' than their original positions." Appellants claim that error engendered further error: the "mistaken" conclusion that since the temporary reassignments were not "demotions," appellants had not been subjected to "disciplinary action" and were therefore not entitled to pre-reassignment notice and hearings.
In urging their respective constructions of the statutory definition of "demotion" ("assignment to an inferior position or status without the employee's written voluntary consent"), neither side directly addresses the meaning of "position" or "status." (§ 88001, subd. (d).) Nor does either side explain the difference between the concepts each word connotes. In failing to squarely address the meaning of the particular words the Legislature chose, the parties run afoul of the principle that every word of a statute must be given "some significance, leaving no part useless or devoid of meaning." (City and County of San Francisco v. Farrell (1982) 32 Cal.3d 47, 54.) "In using two . . . different ...