California Supreme Court: Public Employee May Be Disciplined for Refusing to Cooperate in Investigation

The California Supreme Court held that a deputy public defender was properly discharged when he refused to answer questions during an internal investigation. He argued that he could not be compelled to answer because he invoked his Fifth Amendment right to refuse to answer questions on the grounds they might incriminate him.

But the investigator, a supervisor attorney at the public defender's office, had informed him that his cooperation in the investigation would not be used against him in criminal proceedings. Was his refusal to testify protected conduct? The court unanimously said "no":

a public employee may be compelled, by threat of job discipline, to answer questions about the employee’s job performance, so long as the employee is not required, on pain of dismissal, to waive the constitutional protection against criminal use of those answers. Here, plaintiff was not ordered to choose between his constitutional rights and his job. On the contrary, he was truthfully told that, in fact, no criminal use could be made of any answers he gave under compulsion by the employer. In the context of a noncriminal public employment investigation, the employer was not further required to seek, obtain, and confer a formal guarantee of immunity before requiring its employee to answer questions related to that investigation.

The case is Spielbauer v. County of Santa Clara and the opinion is here.