Baeuerlen v. Ariz. State Parks & Trails Dep’t – 3/1/2022

April 11, 2022

Baeuerlen v. Ariz. State Parks & Trails Dep’t - 3/1/2022 Arizona Court of Appeals Division One holds that a just cause finding by the Arizona Law Enforcement Merit System Council regarding an officer’s discipline under A.R.S. § 41-1830.16(C)(1) extinguishes its authority to recommend a lesser sanction under § 41-1830.16(C)(2).

An officer was terminated by a law enforcement agency for workplace misconduct following an administrative inquiry.  The officer appealed his termination to the Arizona Law Enforcement Merit System Council, which held an evidentiary hearing and found just cause for the officer’s discipline but recommended demotion instead of termination.  The agency’s director subsequently issued a final decision agreeing with the Council’s just cause finding and rejecting its demotion recommendation.  The officer appealed the director’s decision to the superior court, which reversed after finding the director had applied the wrong legal standard in considering the Council’s demotion recommendation.  The agency then appealed the superior court’s decision.

The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded.  It held that a just cause finding under A.R.S. § 41-1830.16(C)(1) extinguishes the Council’s authority to recommend modified discipline under § 41-1830.16(C)(2), which only permits such a recommendation if just cause is found to be lacking.  A finding of just cause includes a finding both that the conduct warrants discipline and that the discipline itself was supported by the evidence, not excessive, and reasonably related to the officer’s underlying conduct and service record.  Because the Council had made such a finding as to the officer’s discipline, it necessarily lacked statutory authority to recommend lesser discipline, and the agency’s director was free to reject it without first having to show that the Council’s recommendation was arbitrary or unreasonable under § 41-1830.16(E).

Judge Thumma authored the opinion; Chief Judge Cattani and Judge Portley joined.