Court Orders Injunction against Riverside County Sheriff’s Department to Protect Union Members’ Civil Rights
Federal District Court Judge Virginia Phillips issued an order on July 7, 2011 enjoining the Riverside County Sheriffs’ Department from retaliating against a Union member for exercising her First Amendment rights to associate and discuss Union related issues with other Union members. Specifically, the Court enjoined the County of Riverside Sheriff’s Department from involuntarily transferring SEIU’s Regional Vice President and lead negotiator Wendy Thomas during the pendency of SEIU 721’s federal Civil Rights lawsuit against the Department. The Court also enjoined the Department from issuing or enforcing any Internal Affairs admonishments or directives, in the course of any County Internal Affairs investigation, prohibiting Thomas from discussing union-related activities, including but not limited to collective bargaining, contract negotiations, and the MOU between SEIU and the County of Riverside.
Plaintiffs Wendy Thomas and SEIU 721 filed a Civil Rights lawsuit against the Department in the United States District Court, Central District of California on December 1, 2010 under 42 U.S.C. § 1983. The Compliant alleges numerous retaliatory actions taken by the Department against Ms. Thomas and other Union members. Among the fifty plus retaliatory acts listed in the compliant are the Department’s decision to unilaterally transfer Ms. Thomas four times in less than two years, removing Ms. Thomas from committees and assignments, instituting a new system to track Union members release time to participate in Union related activities, initiating three internal affairs investigations against Ms. Thomas and issuing “gag orders” preventing Ms. Thomas from speaking with other Union members about anything related to open-ended IA investigations. Since the lawsuit has been filed, the Department has initiated two additional investigations against Thomas with corresponding admonishments.
The Court’s July 7th order granting the injunction is the second victory for SEIU 721 in this lawsuit. The Department filed a Motion to Dismiss the Union’s compliant in January 2011 in which the Department asserted that the Court did not have jurisdiction to hear the matter because the Public Employment Relations Board has initial jurisdiction to decide public sector labor disputes, and because Plaintiffs had not exhausted their administrative remedies prior to filing the lawsuit. The Department also asserted that the individual Defendants named in the lawsuit were entitled to qualified immunity, and thus should be dismissed from the case.
In denying the Defendants’ Motion to Dismiss, the Court found that PERB’s initial jurisdiction in public sector labor disputes does not preempt Federal Court jurisdiction in cases involving federal Civil Rights claims, nor were Plaintiffs required to exhaust administrative remedies prior to commencing an action under 42 U.S.C § 1983, the federal Civil Rights statute. The Court also denied Defendants’ request for qualified immunity for six of the seven individually named defendants. Thus, these six Defendants remain in the lawsuit in their individual capacity.The lawsuit is still on going and a trial is scheduled for early 2012.