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Matt Cate, As Secretary, Etc., et al v. State Personnel Board

October 24, 2011


(Super. Ct. No. 34200980000327)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Robie , J.

Cate v. State Personnel Bd. CA3


California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

In this public employment case, the State Personnel Board (the board) essentially found Correctional Sergeant Aaron Ralls was not lying, but was instead only mistaken, when he wrote in a report and then told an investigator that he did not place an inmate in a neck hold but instead placed his arm only around the inmate's jaw. When the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (the department) sought review of the board's decision in this administrative mandamus proceeding, the superior court disagreed with the board and determined that Ralls was lying. Based on that determination, the court granted the department's petition and issued a writ of mandate directing the board to set aside its decision and reconsider the appropriate discipline.

On Ralls's appeal, we conclude the trial court erred in substituting its own judgment for the board's on the purely factual question of whether Ralls's misrepresentation about where he placed his arm was intentional. Contrary to the court's conclusion, there is substantial evidence in the administrative record from which the board reasonably could have found that Ralls was not being dishonest, but was merely mistaken, when he reported that his arm had been on the inmate's jaw instead of the inmate's neck.*fn1 As long as substantial evidence supports the board's finding, the superior court is without power to make or direct a different finding. Accordingly, we will reverse the judgment granting the department's mandamus petition and direct the trial court to recall the writ and enter a new judgment denying the petition.


Because any factual finding by the board "which is not specifically attacked is to be accepted as true" (Black v. State Personnel Board (1955) 136 Cal.App.2d 904, 909), and the bulk of the findings here were not attacked, we take the following facts from the board's decision in this matter as established:

In April 2007, Ralls was working as a correctional sergeant at California State Prison, Sacramento, when an incident arose in which an inmate placed a note in his mouth and resisted the efforts of various correctional officers to make him relinquish it. Aware only that the inmate had "some type of contraband" in his mouth, Ralls "ran up to [the] inmate . . . from behind,[*fn2 ] wrapped his right arm around [the inmate's] lower neck area, and grabbed his own right arm with his left hand." He then "lifted [the inmate] to almost a kneeling position, and forcefully threw [the inmate] down into a prone position." The inmate, who "has a stocky build, and a thick neck," "had his head leaned down as if trying to touch his chin to his chest." When Ralls told the inmate to "'spit it out,'" the inmate did, and Ralls released him.

Ralls's action did not restrict the inmate's ability to breathe. Nonetheless, the inmate was taken to get medical attention, including a decontamination shower to wash away pepper spray that was used during the incident.

After the inmate was taken to get medical attention, Ralls instructed several of the correctional officers involved to write incident reports. Ralls also discussed the incident with another correctional sergeant, Christopher McCarvel. Sergeant McCarvel showed Ralls a section of the department's operational manual that prohibits trying to retrieve contraband from an inmate's mouth*fn3 and told Ralls he might be subject to discipline over his use of force.

In his own incident report, Ralls wrote that he grabbed the inmate "around [the inmate's] lower jaw area."

One of the correctional officers involved, Lorenzo Lee,*fn4 who was in his first day on the job, handwrote the first draft of his incident report. He intended to type his report after Ralls approved the draft. In his draft, L. Lee wrote that Ralls had the inmate in "some sort of chokehold." L. Lee did not believe Ralls had used an actual choke hold, as L. Lee understood that term, but instead believed Ralls had put his arm around the inmate's upper chest and collarbone area; he used the phrase "some sort of chokehold" because he was not sure how else to describe Ralls's actions.

Upon reviewing L. Lee's draft report, Ralls crossed out several words and phrases, telling L. Lee the report was "rambling" and included too many unnecessary details about the events leading up to the incident. Ralls also asked if L. Lee was sure it was a "chokehold." Ralls told L. Lee that if he was not sure it was, then he should not use that term in his report because an attorney could "pick it apart" in court.

Believing he did not have sufficient training or knowledge to use the term "chokehold," and that the phrase "some sort of chokehold" did not accurately describe the events and could be misleading, L. Lee omitted the phrase from his revised report, writing instead that Ralls grabbed the inmate in the "upper chest area."

Ralls discussed the incident with Correctional Officer G. Lee, who had also been involved, before G. Lee wrote his incident report. G. Lee asked Ralls if Ralls had been choking the inmate. Ralls said he had not and asked G. Lee if he wanted to review Ralls's report. G. Lee said he did, and Ralls gave it to him to review. At some later point, G. Lee wrote in his own report that Ralls "grabbed [the inmate's] jaw with his right forearm." ...

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