Commission’s Back Pay Award Exceeded Its Authority

Decision: 141103 – City of Medina v Skinner 711571

On November 3, the Court of Appeals, Division I held that the Civil Service Commission’s Back Pay Award Exceeded Its Authority when it awarded back pay and benefits after it had modifed Officer Skinner’s discipline.

Lieutenant Roger Skinner was terminated from his position with the City of Medina Police Department for a violation of department standards. Skinner appealed his dismissal to the City’s Civil Service Commission. The Commission found that the City acted in good faith and with just cause when it disciplined Skinner. It also found that the City did not have cause to terminate Skinner. The Commission ordered the City to set aside Skinner’s discharge. Instead of discharge, the Commission ordered Skinner to be suspended without pay and benefits for sixty days.  It also ordered Skinner to be demoted to patrol officer effective the last day of his suspension and ordered the City to pay Skinner back pay and benefits as a patrol officer from the end of the suspension until his health precluded his return to work.  The Commission retained jurisdiction over the matter until resolution of what it called the “remedy phase.” It said that it would set a hearing as to implementation of its order if the parties could not resolve it through stipulation. The City moved for partial reconsideration, challenging the Commission’s award of back pay and benefits.  The Commission denied the motion stating that issues regarding the offset of Skinner’s wages or earnings after his suspension would be addressed during the remedy phase.

The City applied for a statutory writ of review under Chapter 7.16 RCW, arguing that the Commission exceeded its authority in ordering back pay and benefits to Skinner, because he was not fully reinstated to his old position. The trial court granted the City’s writ and Skinner appeals.  The issue on appeal is whether the City had the right to a statutory writ or was limited to a constitutional writ and the City stipulated that if a constitutional writ rather than a statutory writ was applicable, that the Court should reach the underlying issue as if the proper writ had been sought.

 City Has No Statutory Writ of Review Under RCW 41.12.090

Seeking a review via statutory writ of certiorari (also known as a writ of review) is a procedure nearly identical to an appeal and the extent of the Superior Court’s authority to grant a writ of review is a question of law.  Prior case law has found that where the legislature created a procedure for appeal and gave only one party the right to appeal allowing the other party to seek a review through a statutory writ undermines legislative intent and is consequently not available. Here RCW 41.12.090 provides the City’s Civil Service Commission the authority to review a disciplinary action against a Police Department employee and grants only the employee with a right of review.  It does not grant the City a right to an appeal of the Commission’s decision.  Therefore, the City is precluded from seeking review through a statutory writ.

However, the City does have the right to a Constitutional writ of review.  Constitutional writs serve the fundamental purpose of enabling the reviewing Court to determine whether the proceedings belowe were within the lower tribunal’s jurisdiction and authority.  The standard of review for a Constitutional writ is whether the decision below was illegal or arbitrary and capricious.  In this context, an administrative agency’s actions may be found illegal if they exceed the agency’s jurisdiction or authority.

Commission Exceeded Its Authority

The Civil Service Commission is an administrative agency. The Commission has only the authority granted to it by statute. The scope of the Commission’s authority is established in RCW 41.12.090.  The RCW provides the Commission with the authority to affirm, modify, or reverse discipline. It does not expressly authorize the Commission to award damages or other remedies. The Commission clearly acted within its authority by suspending Skinner in lieu of removal, setting the 60 day period of suspension without pay, and then demoting him to patrol officer at a lower level of pay.

The dispute in this case is whether the Commission’s back pay award exceeded its authority when, as part of its modified discipline it reinstated Skinner retroactively, prior to the date of its order, and awarded back pay and benefits.  This is a case of first impression as there is no case law interpreting RCW 41.12.090 or similar civil service statutes.

The city argued that  because RCW 41.12.090 specifically authorizes the Commission to retroactively reinstate the employee and grant back pay when the employee is removed for political or religious reasons or not in good faith for cause, the legislature did not intend to authorize the Commission to do the same when the discipline is only modified. The court rejected the premises of this contention.  If the discipline was imposed in good faith for just cause, the Commission has the discretion to set a period of suspension with subsequent restoration to duty.  the Court notes that nothing in the statute prohibits that restoration to occur prior to the date the Commission enters its order.  Whether it is reversing or modifying a termination or suspension, the Commission has the discretion to set the date of reinstatement.

For the retroactively reinstated employee, the statute mandates the employer to pay compensation back to the time of the original discipline.  However, it does not expressly authorize the Commission to award damages or other remedies.  Skinner argued that the Commission has implied authority to award back pay.  The Court rejects this argument because the entitlement to to pay or compensation from reinstatement, after a period of suspension without pay, flows from the employment contract and any modification to the employee’s classification, grade, or pay, not from this statute.

Here, the Commission went beyond modifying the discipline and explicitly ordered that Skinner was entitled to back pay and benefits until the time he would otherwise have been unable to serve as a result of his health condition and asserted its jurisdiction over the matter until the remedy phase of the proceedings were resolved.  Consequently, the Court found that the Commission’s back pay award exceeded its authority under RCW 41.12.090.  If the City of Medina does not honor its employment compensation obligations under the statute to Officer Skinner, the Officer’s remedy is in Court, not before the Commission.


Commission’s Back Pay Award Exceeded Its Authority

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