Court OKs Prison System's Firing of Guard for Fake Workers' Comp Claim

The California Department of Corrections was within its rights to fire a prison guard for allegedly faking a workers’ comp case even though the disciplinary action came nearly two years after he filed the original claim.  A one-year statute of limitations on disciplinary actions against public safety officers does not apply in cases where criminal misconduct is suspected, says the Fourth District Court of Appeal.

The court’s decision overturns a State Personnel Board decision that had blocked the disciplinary action against Moises Moya, a guard at Centinela State Prison. It found that the action was time barred by a provision in the Public Safety Officers Procedural Bill of Rights. With limited exceptions Government Code section 3304 gives public employers only one year to investigate a claim of misconduct and take action once an authorized person learns of an allegation.

The personnel board said the act’s listed exceptions didn’t apply in this case — even the one stating that the one-year limit doesn’t apply “If the investigation involves an allegation of workers’ compensation fraud on the part of a public safety officer.” The court found otherwise.

“The language of the exception is neither ambiguous nor unclear. It provides that the one-year limitations period does not apply to investigations involving an allegation of workers’ compensation fraud by the subject officer,” Presiding Justice Judith McConnell wrote for the unanimous court. “There is no dispute the investigation in this case involved an allegation of workers’ compensation fraud by Moya. Thus, the requirements for application of the exception have been satisfied.”

“The language of the exception is neither ambiguous nor unclear.” — Presiding Justice Judith McConnell

The case stems from the May 2008 workers’ comp claim filed by Moya. He claimed to suffer a wrist injury when a co-worker inadvertently closed it in a door. Subsequent examinations revealed a wrist fracture and Moya was unable to work.

But prison officials received a tip that the injury actually stemmed from an off-duty fight between Moya and an ex-girlfriend’s male companion. “Moya injured his hand during the fight, but did not seek medical attention. Instead, he waited for an incident to happen at work so he could file a workers’ compensation claim for his hand injury,” the court says, noting that the relevant facts of the case were not in dispute.
in September 2008 prison warden Michael Smelosky referred the case to internal affairs for investigation and one was officially launched two months later. The full investigation took a little over a year to complete and included questioning of the hand specialist that treated Moya who said the injury was more consistent with a fight than a work injury.

With the investigation complete prison officials took the case to local prosecutors seeking criminal charges and also launched an administrative action. The district attorneys in Imperial and San Diego counties declined to press charges, but the administrative proceedings resulted in a notice of dismissal being served to Moya on August 3, 2010.

When Moya challenged the action to the State Personnel Board, it overturned the dismissal finding that it was outside the one-year time frame. The board maintained that the exception for an investigation into workers’ comp fraud did not apply in this case because the investigation was conducted internally — not by an independent third party. The Fourth District however says there is no reason to limit the exception only to external investigations.

“[T]he Legislature created a generally applicable time limit for investigating and bringing charges against a law enforcement office, but excepted certain investigations the timing of which it did not believe management could control,” Justice McConnell wrote noting that such a description could apply to both internal and external investigations. Therefore the exception to the one-year time limit applied.

Click here to read the full text of the court’s decision.