Monday, March 24, 2003
Ninth Circuit Rejects Suit by Sheriff’s Deputy Claiming She Was Fired for Political Reasons
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Friday delivered a potential death blow to a former Tehama County deputy sheriff’s six-year fight for damages she claims resulted from a politically motivated firing.
An adverse ruling in Sherol DiRuzza’s Tehama Superior Court suit arising out of the same facts bars her from pursuing her federal civil rights cause of action, Judge Louis H. Pollak wrote for the Ninth Circuit.
Pollak is a senior U.S. district judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania and sat by designation on the panel, which also included Judges M. Margaret McKeown and Richard A. Paez.
DiRuzza, who according to a news account of the suit took a part-time job in the photo lab at a Costco store in Redding after being fired, worked for the department for three years, but her tenure there ended shortly after Sheriff Rudy ‘’Mike’’ Blanusa lost his post in the 1994 election.
About a month after the election, with Blanusa still in office, DiRuzza was involved in an incident in which she fired eight rounds from her service weapon out a window. She claimed that her boyfriend assaulted her and she discharged the gun in order to attract the attention of passersby.
Blanusa suspended her for 30 days, and the district attorney charged her with gross negligent discharge of a firearm, a felony, and exhibiting a firearm in a rude and threatening manner, a misdemeanor.
She returned to work after Rob Heard, who beat Blanusa in the election, took office. In April, after what she later described as a campaign of harassment by Heard and Undersheriff Jerry Floyd in an effort to purge the office of Blanusa supporters, she reached a plea bargain in the criminal case.
The district attorney agreed to drop the charges in exchange for a guilty plea to disturbing the peace, an infraction, and DiRuzza’s resignation from the Sheriff’s Department.
She later sued in U.S. District Court, claiming her treatment by Heard—who lost his post to current Sheriff Clay Parker in 1998—amounted to constructive termination and constituted political retaliation in violation of the First Amendment and 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983, and also in violation of the state Constitution.
The district judge ruled that as a deputy sheriff, DiRuzza was a “policymaker” who could be fired for expressing political views contrary to those of the sheriff.
But the Ninth Circuit reversed, holding that—while some deputy sheriffs might be policymakers—the determination had to be made on a case-by-case basis, depending on the specific duties performed by the individual. DiRuzza’s lawyers argued that her mundane duties at the county jail did not involve the type of authority or discretion typical of policymakers.
While the federal appeal was pending, DiRuzza filed her Superior Court suit, based on the California cause of action that was dismissed without prejudice by the district judge. The Superior Court judge, however, ruled that her resignation from the office as a condition of the plea bargain mooted her claim that she was forced out for political reasons.
The Fifth District Court of Appeal affirmed, but never reached the issue on which the trial court ruled. The panel said DiRuzza had no case because the state Constitution’s free-speech clause does not create a damages remedy.
When the federal case returned to the district judge, the county moved to dismiss, arguing that the Superior Court ruling barred the claim on collateral estoppel or res judicata grounds. Judge William Shubb agreed.
So did McKeown. Even though the Fifth District panel relied on an alternate ground in affirming, McKeown explained, an 1865 California Supreme Court decision “supports the conclusion that an appellate court’s affirmance for any reason implicitly ratifies all reasoning given in the court below.”
The case is DiRuzza v. County of Tehama, 01-17461.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company