Thursday, September 26, 2002
State High Court Won’t Hear Challenge to Firing of Police Benefits Worker Who Married Prisoner
By a MetNews Staff Writer
The state Supreme Court yesterday declined to review a ruling allowing the nonprofit organization that processes insurance and retirement claims for Los Angeles police officers to fire an employee who chose to marry an incarcerated felon.
Only Justice Joyce L. Kennard voted to hear Cipriana Ortiz’s appeal from a ruling by this district’s Court of Appeal in favor of the Los Angeles Police Relief Association, reported at 98 Cal.App.4th 1288.
Div. One, in an opinion by Justice Robert Mallano, held that LAPRA’s termination of the former benefits administrator “was a rational response to a legitimate employer interest” and did not violate the state Constitution’s privacy clause. The panel agreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Ray L. Hart, who granted LAPRA’s motion for summary judgment.
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 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.
In another case acted on at yesterday’s conference, the justices declined to review another Div. One ruling, this one rejecting an amputee’s claim that he was unlawfully discriminated against when the Los Angeles Police Department would not hire him as an officer.
Only Justices Joyce L. Kennard and Carlos Moreno voted to grant review in Christensen v. City of Los Angeles, B149031. The case was decided May 30, and Justice Ruben Ortega’s opinion was unpublished.
Matthew Christensen, whose leg was amputated below the knee during childhood, argued that he was being discriminated against because of his disability in violation of FEHA.. He argued that he was fully capable of performing the duties of a police officer, noting that he had actively participated in a number of sports over the years.
Ortega, however, agreed with Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Jon Mayeda, who granted the city’s summary judgment motion. The city, the justice said, was entitled to rely on the opinion of an independent medical expert, who said that Christensen could perform many of the tasks of a police officer but that some activities would put him at risk.
“The police department is the sole judge of whether it wishes to assume the risk of hiring an officer whose prosthetic leg may rotate or, even worse, fall off while he is running on uneven ground, climbing six-foot fences, jumping over obstacles, or climbing an embankment,” the justice wrote.
The high court yesterday also agreed to decide whether a condominium association may ban pets pursuant to either a resolution adopted by the board but not included in the declaration of covenants, conditions, and restrictions, or to an amended declaration sought to be enforced against a homeowner who had purchased her property prior to the recording of the amended declaration.
The Fourth District’s Div. Two ruled for the association on both questions on June 28 in Villa De Las Palmas Homeowners Ass’n v. Terifaj, 99 Cal.App.4th 1202. The high court voted unanimously to grant review.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company