Friday, October 10, 2008
Reinstatement of Corrections Employees Who Beat Youths Upheld
By STEVEN M. ELLIS, Staff Writer
The Third District Court of Appeal yesterday upheld the state Personnel Board’s decision to reinstate six correctional employees who were fired for their roles in a videotaped beating of two inmates at a California youth prison.
Ruling in an unpublished decision that the video alone did not provide a basis to reject an administrative law judge’s findings that the employees did not use excessive force in the 2004 incident or lie to cover it up, the court held that a trial judge erred when he ordered the board to set aside its decision and conduct a new hearing.
In a case that drew national attention, the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation fired four youth counselors and two correctional officers from the Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton after the release of the video, accusing them of misconduct in their response to—and subsequent statements regarding—a struggle which occurred after the inmates attacked two of the counselors.
The fight began when one of the two inmates, who were then 19 and 21, punched one of the counselors in the face while the four were in an office.
The video captured the struggle between the four spilling out onto the facility’s day room floor, and the two counselors wrestling the young men to the floor before one counselor punched one inmate repeatedly in the head while sitting astride him, while the other counselor drove his knee into the other inmate’s neck, and appeared to kick the inmate. It also showed the response of the other four employees, which included spraying the inmates in the face with a chemical agent, and firing a gun that discharged balls of pepper spray.
The employees appealed their dismissal to the board, contending that they had acted reasonably in trying to subdue the inmates, and that they had all given honest accounts after the incident. They also alleged that their firing was an attempt to deflect attention from mismanagement, including poor training and understaffing, in the state’s youth correctional system.
After a lengthy hearing that included conflicting expert testimony, an administrative law judge found that the department had not proven its claims of excessive force, failure by the responding employees to intervene to stop the use of excessive force, or dishonesty against any of the employees, and the board reinstated the employees.
The department then sought a writ in the San Joaquin Superior Court to overturn the board’s decision, and Judge Carter Holly—finding that the video showed three of the employees inflicting harm on the inmates after they stopped resisting in violation of department policy, and that none of the employees accurately reported the level of force used—concluded that no substantial evidence supported the Board’s decision.
Holly ordered a new hearing before a different administrative law judge, but Justice Fred K. Morrison, noting that the trial court was required to uphold the board’s decision if substantial evidence supported it, wrote on the employees’ appeal that Holly had misapplied the appropriate standard of review.
“We have seen the film…and it is disturbing,” he wrote. “But the Board, considering all of the evidence, could rationally conclude that the film does not show everything that was happening and does not, viewed alone, fairly portray the circumstances facing the employees.”
“At bottom, most of the claims are invitations to reweigh the evidence. Another Board might have come to a different conclusion, as the evidence was in conflict on several material points.
“However, the employees’ expert and one of the Department’s experts testified that force is appropriate until a ward stops resisting. The images show the wards continuing to move beyond the points identified by the Department’s expert as the points where force should have stopped. Whether those movements reflect resistance or perceived resistance is not clear from any of the images.
“On these facts we cannot say that no substantial evidence supports the Board’s decision…. The fact that reasonable minds can differ means the trial court should not have set aside the Board’s decision in this difficult matter.”
Morrison similarly opined that the department failed to show bias on the part of the administrative law judge, and rejected the department’s argument that the judge abused her discretion by not granting two mid-hearing continuance requests to enable the department to conduct a medical examination of the two employees who were initially attacked.
Presiding Justice Arthur G. Scotland and Justice Vance W. Raye joined Morrison in his opinion.
The case is Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation v. State Personnel Board (Brown), C054639.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company