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Kheven LaGrone v. City of Oakland et al

December 16, 2011; as modified January 11, 2012


(Alameda County Super. Ct. No. RG09477713)

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


The City of Oakland (City) appeals from a judgment granting Kheven LaGrone's petition for a writ of administrative mandamus. The trial court directed that LaGrone be reinstated to his position as an engineer with the Port of Oakland, a department of the City, with back pay and benefits. We conclude the judgment is supported by the evidence. We also conclude the court's decision to deny LaGrone's request for attorneys' fees was within its discretion. Accordingly, we affirm.


LaGrone Is Laid Off From His Position with the Port

LaGrone worked for the Port as a civil engineer from 1981 to 2008. Over the years he was promoted from Junior Civil Engineer to Assistant Civil Engineer and, ultimately, to Associate Civil Engineer. In May 2002, when LaGrone was an Assistant Civil Engineer, the Port renamed its engineering job descriptions by adding "Port" to the job titles. The new job title had no effect on LaGrone's duties.

As a general matter, and as we shall explain in more detail, City jobs fall within specified classes. The City's personnel manual defines "class or class of positions" as "a position or group of positions for which a common descriptive job title may be used, as defined by similar education, experience, knowledge, duties, qualifications and compensation schedule." Similarly, the Personnel Rules and Procedures of the Port of Oakland (Port Rules) define a job class as "a definitely recognized kind of employment in the Port or City service (1) which is designated to embrace all positions sufficiently similar with respect to the duties, requirements as to education, experience, knowledge, ability or other qualifications required of incumbents; (2) for which similar tests of fitness may be used in choosing qualified appointees; and (3) a similar compensation schedule may be made to apply with equity and uniformity." When layoffs occur, more senior employees within a particular job class or classification are entitled to "bump" less senior employees in the same class, so that the more senior employee can remain employed and the less senior employee will be laid off.

In August 2008, LaGrone was notified by Port Executive Director Omar Benjamin that his position was being eliminated as part of the new operating budget and that he had insufficient seniority credits to "bump" any other Port employee in his job classification. But, Benjamin explained: "since the Port and the City of Oakland are under a comprehensive personnel system, and based upon your seniority credits in the classification of Port Associate Engineer (Civil Work) you do have seniority over other employees in the Civil Engineer classification at the City of Oakland and will bump a less senior City of Oakland employee in this classification." Therefore, Benjamin notified LaGrone, he was being reassigned to a Civil Engineer position with the City's Community & Economic Development Agency (CEDA). The following week the City sent LaGrone a letter confirming his new appointment to CEDA.

Around that time acting City Administrator Dan Lindheim learned that a number of Port engineers were being laid off and had been notified they had the right to "bump" into City engineering positions. Lindheim felt the fiscal and managerial ramifications of allowing Port employees to bump into City positions would be "devastating" for the City. After he learned that the Port had previously refused to allow some City engineers to bump into Port positions and consulted with the city attorney, Lindheim concluded the City was not required to allow Port engineers to bump into City positions. He informed Benjamin that the City would decline to accept the Port employees. "As you know, the Port Commission has the authority, and has frequently exercised the authority to create Port-specific classifications. Employees in these classes do not have the right to 'bump' into City positions. It appears that the Port Commission has exercised that authority with respect to the engineering, human resource and accountant classes, creating Port-specific classes." On September 11, 2008, LaGrone was notified that the City would not accept laid-off Port employees in his classification. Because there were no available Port positions in his classification, he was laid off effective September 26, 2008.

The Administrative Proceedings

LaGrone appealed the City's decision to its Civil Service Board on the ground that the layoff violated the Oakland City Charter and both the City's and Port's personnel rules. He asserted that the Port's Associate Civil Engineer positions were in a common job classification with the City's Civil Engineer positions, and that he was entitled to bump into a City position within the same classification. The City argued LaGrone had no right to bump into a City position because his classification was a "Port specific," not a city-wide, engineering classification.

An administrative hearing was held before the Civil Service Board. LaGrone testified he understood he had the right to bump less senior City employees within his current and former job classifications in the event of a layoff. He asserted that the renaming of his position in 2002 did not change his job classification and was inconsistent with the City's and Port's personnel rules and procedures for classification changes. Moreover, his duties and responsibilities remained the same after his job title changed.

LaGrone testified that in 2001 he applied to transfer to an Assistant Civil Engineer position with the City, and that engineers commonly transferred between the City and the Port at that time. He took the City's promotional examination, was placed on the eligibility list for the City Civil Engineer position, and renewed his position on the transfer list in 2003. Under the Port Rules, employees can only put their names on transfer lists for positions within the same job classification. "Any permanent classified employee may be transferred or request a special or permanent transfer from one appointing authority to another with the consent of the employee and the approval of the personnel director, and the consent of the appointing authority concerned, provided the positions are in the same or similar class." (Port Rules, § 5.09.)

The City argued LaGrone had no right to bump into a City position because the Port Associate Engineer classification and the City Civil Engineer classification are not common classes. Although the Port is a department of the City, it operates autonomously in a number of respects and has its own personnel department, personnel procedures and rules. Under those rules, the Port Commissioners have the authority to create new job classifications within the Port. The Port conducts its own recruitment process for all Port jobs independent of the City's recruitment process.

Historically, the City and Port would confer and agree on what they considered to be "city-wide" or "common" job classifications. At the time of the 2008 layoffs both City and Port human resources staff initially believed that Port Associate Engineer and City Civil Engineer classifications were common classes. But, after the acting city administrator looked into the matter, the City decided the Board of Port Commissioners had created a new, Port specific classification for LaGrone's job when it renamed the job in 2002. After that change only Port employees could apply for a promotion to Port Associate Engineer, and Port Associate Engineers were protected from being bumped by or having to compete with City-employed engineers for promotions.

Jamie Pritchett is the City's Principal Human Resource Analyst and was the City's layoff coordinator in 2008. She testified that the Port Commission approves both the creation of Port job classifications and changes in existing job classifications. When the Port renames a position "Port-specific," it bars City employees from applying for or transferring into it. In the past, the City and Port would compare job descriptions and qualifications to determine which job classifications would be treated as common. Not all Port jobs have common classifications with the City, and not all City positions have common classifications with the Port. During the 2008 layoffs Pritchett initially determined the Port Associate Engineer and City Civil Engineer positions were common classifications. Later, Lindheim told her that positions the Port identified as Port-specific could not be common to City classifications. The City did not have a list of the common classifications as ...

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