Throwing Pitches in a Civil Case

Make that Pitchess with an extra s—as in Pitchess motions. In California, they’re how you ask a court to order the production of a police officer’s personnel file in litigation.

We’ve written about them in the context of criminal cases, but the procedure’s the same in civil cases, as a court of appeal recently explained in an employment case.

A retired police officer had sued his police department for unlawful retaliation. He said the trouble started after he had served 18 years on the force, when he blew the whistle on two officers for filing false reports. He was branded a snitch and ostracized. Even his calls for help in the field would go ignored. He transferred divisions and applied for 14 different promotions but was denied each time in favor of someone less qualified. So he sued.

To prove his case, he moved to obtain the personnel files of the officers who were promoted ahead of him. He argued their records were material to his case because the department claimed to have promoted the more-qualified candidates.

The trial court, however, denied his motion because the records belonged to third parties who had nothing to do with the alleged retaliation. That was the department’s argument, anyway, and the court accepted it.

But that’s not the law.

Because the records were material to the plaintiff’s case, the agency had to produce them for the court to decide what was relevant and discoverable. It didn’t matter that it was a civil case, not a criminal one. It didn’t matter that the records pertained to people who were innocent of wrongdoing. What mattered is that the records were material to the plaintiff’s case, and there was no denying that.

Although the trial court could take a number of steps to balance the rights of third parties, it couldn’t refuse to review the records and test their relevance.

So the court of appeal reversed and sent the case back.

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