Monday, June 3, 2002
C.A. Upholds Firing of Police Benefits Worker Who Married Prisoner
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer/Appellate Courts
The nonprofit organization that processes insurance and retirement claims for Los Angeles Police Department officers did not violate the state Constitution’s privacy clause by firing an employee who chose to marry an incarcerated felon, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled.
The Los Angeles Police Relief Association’s termination of former benefits administrator Cipriana Ortiz “was a rational response to a legitimate employer interest,” Justice Robert Mallano wrote for Div. One.
The court affirmed a summary judgment granted by Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ray L. Hart in favor of LAPRA.
Ortiz began work at the association in 1989. In January 2000, she informed LAPRA’s then-executive director, Ramona Voge, that she intended to marry Michael Estrada, a convicted burglar serving a 15-year sentence and asked for a day off work for the wedding.
Voge notified her superiors, suggesting that the relationship constituted a conflict of interest because Ortiz had access to confidential information about LAPD officers, including their residential addresses and the names of their spouses and children.
Ortiz told her superiors she would not discontinue the relationship. After she reiterated that position to the LAPRA board, she was offered an opportunity to resign with the understanding that she would receive assistance in locating a job with another employer.
She said she would not resign, and the board fired her.
Ortiz sued for sex and marital status discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, violation of the constitutional rights to privacy and freedom of association, and termination in violation of public policy. The sex discrimination claim was dismissed after a demurrer was sustained, while the remaining claims were rejected on summary judgment.
Mallano, writing for the Court of Appeal, acknowledged that the privacy clause protects the fundamental right to marry and prohibits the government from imposing unreasonable burdens on that right.
But he noted that federal courts have upheld a number of laws that imposed burdens related to marriage, including antinepotism laws and a law that denied unemployment compensation to an employee who quit a job in order to move to the city of a spouse’s residence.
“LAPRA’s conflict of interest rule functions much like an antinepotism policy,” Mallano wrote, in that it does not prohibit an employee from marrying, but forces one to choose between marrying a particular individual and working for a particular employer. The forced choice is permissible, the justice said, if the interest it serves is legitimate.
LAPRA’s interest in keeping its employees—all of whom have access to confidential information—from marrying incarcerated felons is not merely legitimate, he said, it is “paramount.” Not only could an employee voluntarily turn over confidential information to an inmate spouse, the fact that she was married to an inmate would subject her to coercion and create an appearance of impropriety even if no such information were actually disclosed, Mallano said.
In an unpublished portion of the opinion, Mallano said Ortiz’s marital discrimination claim was also properly rejected.
Ortiz was not fired because of her marital status, he explained, but because of her choice of spouse. LAPRA, he noted, would have fired her for continuing her relationship with Estrada even if she agreed not to marry him.
LAPRA has had a number of recent high-profile lawsuits over firings. Voge was fired last year, and the association sued her, alleging that she took confidential documents with her and disclosed the data to the media. A hearing on that suit is scheduled for today.
Voge alleged that LAPRA continued taking city money for health benefits for officers after they died.
A previous executive director was convicted of grand theft.
The case is Ortiz v. Los Angeles Police Relief Association, B148574.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company