Public Pension Group Obtains Unanimous Victory in California Court of Appeal

The California Court of Appeal for the First Appellate District recently handed down a unanimous decision in Greene v. Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association, denying the petitioner’s request for issuance of a writ of mandate on the ground of disqualifying bias. (First DCA Case No. A153567, not certified for publication, April 30, 2019.) Petitioner sought a disability retirement from the Marin County Employees’ Retirement Association (“MCERA”) and presented her claims before an administrative law judge (“ALJ”). The ALJ denied her claims, and MCERA adopted the ALJ’s decision.

Petitioner had been treated by a physician of a health plan, and Petitioner allegedly later learned that the ALJ had been the general counsel of that health plan more than ten years before his adjudication of her claims. Even though the health plan was not a party to the administrative proceedings, petitioner sought a writ of mandate to disqualify the ALJ as a matter of law and to vacate his proposed decision, asserting that (i) he was impermissibly biased in violation of the petitioner’s due process rights, (ii) he failed to disclose the health plan relationship in course of the administrative proceedings, and (iii) he failed to respond to her disqualification demand under Code of Civil Procedure section 170.3, subdivision (c)(3). After a hearing, the trial court entered judgment in favor of MCERA.

The Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s decision and rejected each of her claims. The court held that the past representation of the health plan was “wholly unconnected” to the subject of the disability retirement administrative proceedings. There was no claim made against the health plan in the proceeding, and no physicians of the health plan testified at the hearing. Further, the relationship between the ALJ’s former position as general counsel and the administrative proceedings was too attenuated and remote in time to create any credible basis for petitioner’s claim of bias. The Court of Appeal therefore held that a reasonable person with knowledge of the facts would not doubt the ALJ’s impartiality, disposing of petitioner’s statutory and constitutional bias claims. In addition, the court held that the ALJ was not required to disclose his former relationship with the health plan under the canons of the California Code of Judicial Ethics and that the ALJ was not required to respond to petitioner’s disqualification demand.

Nossaman LLP represented MCERA through the trial and appellate court proceedings. Ashley Dunning, co-chair of the Nossaman Public Pensions & Investments Group, was lead trial and appellate counsel, with assistance from Nossaman partners Peter Mixon and Jennifer Meeker.

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