Stant v. City of Maricopa Employee Merit Board – 2/25/2014

March 5, 2014

Arizona Court of Appeals Division Two Affirms Termination of Police Sergeant’s Employment and That It Has Appellate Jurisdiction Over Appeals From a Superior Court’s Judgment Affirming Certain Municipal Decisions.

In 2010, Stant was a sergeant with the Maricopa Police Department.  The Department conducted an internal investigation of one of Stant’s subordinate officers.  When the investigators questioned Stant about his knowledge of the officer’s actions, Stant refused to answer questions.  One of the Department’s policies requires officers who witness misconduct to cooperate with internal investigations.  The Department’s chief of police reviewed the matter and terminated Stant for violating the policy.  Stant had previously been suspended and sanctioned for other infractions.

Stant appealed to the Merit Board, which is charged with determining whether the termination was “made in good faith for cause.”  The Merit Board issues advisory findings for the city manager, who has final authority over matters brought to the Merit Board.  The Merit Board concluded that the evidence supported the termination and the city ultimately upheld the termination.  Stant appealed to the superior court, which affirmed the termination.  Stant appealed again to the court of appeals.

The Court affirmed.  First, however, the Court had to decide whether it had jurisdiction.  Stant brought his case to the superior court via a petition for writ of certiorari under A.R.S. § 38-1004, a type of “statutory special action” under the Arizona Rules of Procedure for Special Actions.  Typically, the court of appeals’ jurisdiction derives from A.R.S. § 12-2101, which grants jurisdiction over cases “commenced in a superior court, or brought into a superior court from any other court.”  The Court explained that Stant’s case did not “originate” or “commence” in the superior court; the case was best described as an “appeal” to the superior court.  Thus, the Court could not have jurisdiction under the general statute granting jurisdiction over cases “commenced” in a superior court.  The Court held, however, that there was mandatory appellate jurisdiction under A.R.S. § 12-2007, which “allows an appeal from a superior court’s judgment in an action under [Arizona’s] general certiorari statutes.”  In addition, parts of A.R.S. § 38-1004 “recognized or implicitly provided” a right to appeal by conditioning attorneys’ fee awards when a party “appeals the decision of the court.”  A.R.S. § 38-1004(B)(2) and (C)(2).

Turning to the merits, the Court first addressed the applicable standards of review for the city and for the appellate courts.  The Merit Board and the city were required to determine whether the termination decision was made with “good faith for cause.”  The superior court’s review was limited; it was to decide whether the board “has regularly pursued its authority” or whether the board’s actions were “arbitrary and capricious or an abuse of discretion.”  A.R.S. § 12-2006.  The Court of Appeals explained that this standard means that the superior court had to “determine whether the record contained any evidence to support the decision of the board and city” or whether the action “exceeded its legal authority.”  Finally, the Court of Appeals applied the same standard as the superior court.

Applying those standards, the Court held that Stant failed to show a lack of evidence or other legal error.  Stant argued that the termination was not in “good faith” because he was terminated for “conduct no reasonable officer would have recognized as punishable.”  The Court disagreed, noting that several pieces of evidence contradicted Stant’s argument.  For instance, the internal affairs detective testified that he “immediately knew Stant had committed a serious violation of policy.”  In addition, Stant’s own testimony was that he knew about the policy in question and “knew he had a duty to cooperate with department investigations during his interview.”  The Court, therefore, held that the record contained sufficient evidence to affirm the decision to terminate Stant.

Judge Eckerstrom authored the unanimous opinion; judges Kelly and Espinosa concurred.