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Court of Appeals Gives Deputy Coroners An Unkind Cut

The California Court of Appeal recently held that a deputy coroner’s principal duties and functions do not fall within the scope of “active law enforcement” under Government Code section 20436(a). As a result of this determination, deputy coroners are not entitled to be classified as “local safety members,” a classification that would substantially enhance their retirement benefits.

In the case, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association v. Board of Administration of the California Public Employees’ Retirement System, the Riverside Sheriffs’ Association (“RSA”), as representative of current and retired Riverside County deputy coroners, appealed a decision by PERB refusing to change the status of the deputy coroners to a classification that would have significantly increased their retirement benefits.

The central issue in this case was the determination of the principal duties and functions performed by the deputy coroners. Government Code section 20436(a) grants peace officer status to employees of a county sheriff’s department only if their principal functions “clearly come within the scope of active law enforcement service,” notwithstanding that they may occasionally be engaged in active law enforcement functions. The Court of Appeal found that the deputy coroners’ primary function is to investigate causes of death in unusual cases, not to engage in activities that involve direct contact with criminal suspects or the prevention of crime. Consequently, the Court of Appeal held that the Riverside County deputy coroners could not be classified as local safety members, and were thus not entitled to the enhanced retirement benefits.

This case is a reminder to review classifications carefully, not only for proper job descriptions, functions and duties, but also for the less obvious, and perhaps more costly issue – how much does a county, municipality, or town using the services of a County Sheriff’s department pay into public retirement funds. For more information about this case or other matters affecting the public retirement system, please visit our Labor and Employment practice page.