Due Process And Changing Disciplinary Charges

Written on 01/05/2023

Steven Rodgers is a correctional sergeant with the Department of Cor­rections and Rehabilitation in Califor­nia. In 2018, the Department notified Rodgers that it was sustaining disci­plinary charges against him and would be reducing his salary by 10% for two years. The Department alleged that while supervising a contraband surveillance watch shift, Rodgers refused to perform a restraint check at the beginning of the shift and directed his officers to falsify the watch form to say they had performed the check. The Department also alleged that when Rodgers found out the officers had reported his misconduct to another sergeant, he angrily confronted them and used profanity in asking them who had “ratted him out.”

When an administrative law judge and the State’s Personnel Board upheld the reduction in Rodgers’ salary, he challenged the decision in the California Court of Appeals.

The Court found that as “the ALJ found he engaged in significantly dif­ferent conduct than that alleged in the State’s disciplinary letter, we conclude he lacked notice such conduct could subject him to the full penalty proposed in the letter. Due process requires that an em­ployee be given notice of the standards by which his conduct is to be measured and fair notice as to the reach of the dis­ciplinary procedure. That requires that the employee be given adequate notice of the claimed legal standard and the events which are alleged to contravene it and an opportunity to challenge them.

“The facts the ALJ found true at the hearing are significantly different from those the Department alleged in their charging document as the basis for the penalty. The letter alleged that Rodgers had attempted to cover up his own inten­tional neglect by ordering subordinates to falsify official documents and then had gotten angry with his subordinates for reporting that misconduct. Such behavior on the part of a supervisor represents a serious transgression, one that, if found true, would undoubtedly have supported a severe punishment like the salary reduction proposed in the letter. However, the ALJ found all three of those charges unsubstantiated and instead found true a very different version of events.

“In that version, Rodgers, while busy performing other duties, repeatedly assured his subordinates he would per­form the required inspection, but later. A few hours after having performed the required inspection in a timely manner, Rodgers’s supervisor informed him that his subordinates had told another ser­geant he was refusing to do the inspec­tion on time. Crucially, the ALJ found Rodgers was confronting the officers for making what – in his mind – was a false accusation against him; he was not confronting the officers for accurately reporting his own misconduct.

“To be clear, we aren’t condoning Rodgers’ behavior or saying it’s not pun­ishable. As the ALJ observed, Rodger’s decision to confront his subordinates with anger and profanity was unprofes­sional, discourteous, and violated the Department’s policy on treating other employees with respect. But the issue before us is not whether he committed any misconduct, it’s whether he was on notice that his alleged actions could subject him to the proposed penalty. To answer that question, due process requires us to compare the facts alleged to those found true after an evidentiary hearing.

“In the alleged version, Rodgers engaged in grave misconduct, contrib­uting to a culture of silence that fosters corruption. The ALJ rejected that theory, however, and found he’d simply failed to keep his temper in check and treat his subordinates with respect when confront­ing them over a misunderstanding. Given the significant difference between the two kinds of misconduct, we conclude Rod­gers lacked notice that his actions could subject him to the imposed penalty.”

Rodgers v. State Personnel Board, 2022 WL 4115205 (Cal. App. 2022).

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