Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles (Cal. Ct. App. - Jan. 23, 2012)

It's been a pretty slow week thus far, with the three-day holiday and all.  No opinions by the Ninth Circuit today (and only a couple earlier in the week), and only one published opinion by the Court of Appeal thus far.

But the good thing about all that is that is encourages me to go back and reread cases that were a disaster.  Like this one.  Which was decided on the same day as another opinion that was amended today, so it led me to go back and reread it.  A case that's a huge clusterfart.

The opinion shows, in my mind, how these things can become a nightmare.  I won't attempt to defend my views on this one, and reasonable people can (and surely do) disagree.  I'll just give you my take.  A take that's admittedly based on an incomplete and cold appellate record.  But it's nonetheless my opinion.

I think the Internal Affairs department of the LAPD made a pretty coherent call when it concluded that the LAPD officer here fabricated a sexual harassment charge against another LAPD officer in order to avoid pending discipline against him.  I think the Board of Rights, which investigated this charge, similarly made a coherent call when it agreed and recommended that the complaining officer be terminated for fabricating the charge.

I didn't read the entire underlying opinion, but instead only the snippets of it quoted on appeal, but I must say that I was somewhat surprised to learn that the superior court reversed the termination on the grounds that it wasn't supported by substantial evidence.  The Board made a very specific and detailed credibility finding.  I would have thought this would have resulted in dispositive deference.  But apparently not.

So the officer gets reinstated.  Okay.  I guess I can live with that.  Not my preferred solution, but okay.

But then the officer sues, claiming retaliation.  And gets to proceed to trial.  And prevails.  To the tune of $2 million-plus.

That's something for which I'm not on board.

It's bad enough that a sworn peace officer may have fabricated a report against another officer to avoid discipline and then avoided discipline for this offense.  But the thought that such a person might become a multimillionaire by doing so is simply too much.  More critically, it seems to me that the LAPD did exactly what we should want them to do here.  It investigated a tough dispute.  It made a credibility call.  It tried to do the right thing.

Letting a huge jury verdict stand in such settings would deter organizations like the LAPD from doing exactly what we want them to do.  You don't want an organization's self-interest -- avoiding liability -- placing a huge thumb on the scale of its investigation.  Especially when it involves reputations and careers.

So I'm glad to see the Court of Appeal reverse the judgment here.  It's the right call.

I'm still sad the case had to go to trial; in my mind, it should have been dismissed on summary judgment or on a nonsuit.  But justice delayed is at least better than justice denied.