California Court of Appeals, Fourth District, Second Division
[As modified Oct. 24, 2014.]
APPEAL from the Superior Court of Riverside County No. RIC1119087. Sharon J. Waters, Judge.
Ferguson, Praet & Sherman and Anthony M. Snodgrass for Defendants and Appellants.
Stone Busailah, Michael P. Stone, Muna Busaila, and Robert Rabe for Plaintiff and Respondent.
The County of Riverside and the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department (collectively Department) demoted Deputy Jose Quintanar as a result of an incident in which Quintanar allegedly used excessive force. Pursuant to the applicable Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), Quintanar filed an administrative appeal. This triggered an evidentiary hearing before an impartial hearing officer. The hearing officer agreed that Quintanar had used excessive force and upheld the demotion.
Quintanar then filed a petition for writ of mandate. The trial court, sua sponte, questioned whether the hearing officer was required to exercise independent judgment with respect to the nature of the discipline to be imposed, and if so, whether he had, in fact, done so. It remanded the matter to the hearing officer with directions to clarify whether he had exercised independent judgment. On receiving his reply, it determined that he had not exercised independent judgment and it issued a writ commanding him to do so.
The Department appealed. We agree with the trial court that, under the MOU, the hearing officer was required to exercise independent judgment not only with respect to whether there were grounds for discipline, but also with respect to the nature of the discipline. We disagree with the trial court’s conclusion, however, that the hearing officer’s failure to use independent judgment was prejudicial. The hearing officer did indicate that, while he did not believe that he was required to exercise his independent judgment, the exercise of his independent judgment would not have changed the outcome.
Hence, we will reverse.
FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND
A. The Memorandum of Understanding.
The 2008-2011 MOU between the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association, Inc. and the County of Riverside provided: “Any employee may appeal any disciplinary action taken against the employee.”
An appeal is to be heard by a hearing officer. The hearing officer is selected from a list of persons previously agreed to by both parties. The hearing officer must hold an evidentiary hearing, at which both sides have the right to call and examine witnesses, to cross-examine the witnesses for the other side, and to introduce exhibits. After the hearing, the hearing officer must “submit written findings of fact, conclusions of law, and the decision.... The decision of the Hearing Officer shall be final subject to the right of either party to seek judicial review under Section 1094.5 of the California Code of Civil Procedure.”
“The Hearing Officer may sustain, modify, or rescind an appealed disciplinary action....” “If the Hearing Officer finds that the disciplinary action was appropriate, the action shall be sustained.”
B. Quintanar’s Demotion.
Quintanar worked for the Riverside County Sherriff's Department as a correctional deputy. On September 28, 2009, he was involved in an incident in which he allegedly used excessive force against an arrestee.
The Department conducted an investigation. The investigation included interviews with eyewitnesses, including Quintanar, and the review of a video of the incident. The investigation concluded that Quintanar had, in fact, used excessive force.
On January 11, 2010, the Department sent Quintanar a notice of intent to demote him based on inefficiency or negligence, willful violation of an employee regulation, and ...