August 26, 2015
In what amounts to a cautionary tale for public employers, a Fourth District Court of Appeal panel issued an unpublished opinion on August 12, 2015 that former police officers who left the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) could not be compelled to reimburse the City for the cost of their law enforcement training.
In an effort to reduce attrition of newly trained police officers, the City enacted an Administrative Code provision in the early 1990’s that required any police officer who left the LAPD within five years of the completion of their mandatory law enforcement training at the police academy to work for another law enforcement agency to reimburse a prorated amount of the cost of the academy training. The Code also required police officers to sign an acknowledgement in which they agreed to provide such reimbursement.
In 2001, the City initiated breach of contract claims against 43 former officers to recover training costs on the grounds they breached their obligations under the reimbursement acknowledgement. The Superior Court found in favor of the City with respect to 40 of the former officers.
On appeal, Appellants contended that the signed acknowledgments were not enforceable because they were contrary to the California Labor Code. Section 2802 of the Labor Code requires employers to indemnify their employees for all necessary expenditures incurred as a direct consequence of the discharge of their duties. The Appellants asserted that because they were required to attend the police academy, it was a necessary expenditure for which the City was obligated and that the acknowledgement was therefore void.
The Court of Appeal found that Labor Code section 2802 “does not explicitly provide that the costs of employee training are to be borne by the employer,” even when a license is a requirement for the job. However, Court of Appeal agreed with the California Division of Labor Standards Enforcement’s interpretation that there are situations where licensure “is not actually required by statute or ordinance but the employer requires either the training or the licensing (or both) simply as a requirement of employment. In that case, Labor Code section 2802 would require the employer to reimburse the cost.”
California requires law enforcement officers to possess state-standardized Police Officer Standards and Training (POST) certification, which essentially licenses a person to practice as a peace officer. Although there are no requirements that employers pay for POST training, generally law enforcement agencies do so, partly as a way to entice recruitment. The Court of Appeal concluded that POST certification was not employer-mandated training that was an expense of discharging the duties of employment, but was instead set by the POST commission. Accordingly, it was an expense to be borne by the individual police officer.
However, the LAPD had instituted more stringent additional training requirements than POST’s minimum standards. The LAPD academy requires 644 hours of POST training and another 420 hours of “department-required” training. That training regimen was specific to the LAPD and the City’s law enforcement issues, and it included training in local crime patterns and prevention strategies.
Ultimately, the Court of Appeal determined that the broad purpose of Section 2802 is to require an employer to bear all of the costs inherent in conducting a business, and it indemnifies employees from being forced to carry those costs. The Court of Appeal reasoned that because Los Angeles instituted a training program that was more extensive – and more costly - than the minimum POST certification training, it was an employer-mandated expense that the City, and not the officer, should carry. Accordingly, the reimbursement acknowledgment was deemed void and unenforceable.
As the Court of Appeal’s decision is unpublished, it cannot be cited as precedent in future matters and the lower courts are not obligated to follow it. However, the decision should still serve as a potential warning for those public employers with training reimbursement policies should those ever be subject to legal scrutiny. To the extent that a public agency requires additional training for employment apart from minimum certification requirements, the Court of Appeal’s decision signals such reimbursement policies may not be valid, even if there is prior agreement by the employee.