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Ninth Circuit: California Personnel Board Decision Not Issue Preclusive

On September 14, 2015, the Ninth Circuit court of appeals held that decisions of the California State Personnel Board did not have an issue preclusive effect in a federal lawsuit based upon the same claims of retaliation for whistleblowing.

David Wabakken was a lieutenant with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (DORC) when he became the subject of three adverse actions that resulted in his dismissal. Wabakken had previously disclosed improper governmental action to his supervisors. Therefore, he appealed all three adverse actions to the California State Personnel Board.

The board dismissed Wabakken's alle6ations of retaliation under California Government Code § 8547.8(a), stating; that he had not demonstrated the adverse action was taken in retaliation for his whistleblowin6, but scheduled a hearing for his other defenses. An Administrative Law Jude held that the DORC had failed to prove any of the allegations in the first and second adverse actions and had only proven some minor misconduct allegations contained in the third adverse action for which dismissal was too harsh a penalty. The board adopted the judge's decision.

Wabakken filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the DORC and prison officials pursuant to 42 U.S.C. § 1983, alledin6 the disciplinary action was in retaliation for his whistleblowin6. The defendants filed a motion for summary judgment claiming; the lawsuit was barred by the doctrines of collateral estoppel and res judicata. The court rejected the res judicata claim, but granted summary judgment on the basis of issue preclusion (collateral estoppel). Wabakken appealed.

The Ninth Circuit noted that, in State Board of Chiropractic Examiners v. Superior Court, 45 Cal. 4th 963 (2009), the California Supreme Court held that "the Legislature did not intend the State Personnel Board's finding;s [in a whistleblower retaliation case] to have a preclusive effect against a complainin6 employee." Since the Ninth Circuit is bound by decisions of the state's hi6hest court on issues of interpretation of state law, the court held that the board's decision did not result in a collateral estoppel bar to the issues in Wabakken's federal lawsuit. Therefore, it reversed the judgment of the district court and remanded the case to that court. See: Wabakken v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, 9th Cir., No. 13-56075.

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Related legal case

Wabakken v. California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation