The California Highway Patrol owes nine years of back wages to a sergeant it refused to return to duty in 2008 because she had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and two department-appointed doctors believed she could exacerbate her condition by serving in law enforcement. Craig Kohlruss AP
The California Highway Patrol owes nine years of back wages to a sergeant it refused to return to duty in 2008 because she had been diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder and two department-appointed doctors believed she could exacerbate her condition by serving in law enforcement. Craig Kohlruss AP

The State Worker

Chronicling civil-service life for California state workers

The State Worker

CHP fought nine years to block an officer with PTSD from returning to work. It lost.

By Adam Ashton

aashton@sacbee.com

December 27, 2017 10:46 PM

The California Highway Patrol owes hundreds of thousands of dollars to an officer it fought to keep off duty for nine years because she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

The officer, Sgt. Kerri Hawkins, is back on duty, but still battling the department.

The CHP has not moved to pay her the back wages in the nine months since the State Personnel Board affirmed a 2015 decision that ordered the department to reinstate her. The board also ordered the department to pay Hawkins for the time it spent trying to block her return to the force.

“There was an order to reinstate her with back pay, and that has not happened yet,” said Carrie Lane, chief executive officer of the union that represents CHP officers. The union represented Hawkins in her effort to return to duty.

Be the first to know.

No one covers what is happening in our community better than we do. And with a digital subscription, you'll never miss a local story.

The California Highway Patrol would not comment on Hawkins’ case. It referred to her appeal as “pending litigation,” and would not say what decisions remain outstanding.

Lane is unaware of a lawsuit. The department may be referring to negotiations over how much it owes Hawkins.

The State Controller’s Office, which manages the state payroll, reached out to the CHP “to expedite payment” to Hawkins after The Sacramento Bee called, state Controller’s Office spokeswoman Taryn Kinney said.

Hawkins’ long ordeal reflects both the difficulty doctors face in determining whether a behavioral health condition makes someone incapable of working, and the sometimes painfully long process of resolving a personnel dispute in California state government.

Hers was one of two almost simultaneous appeals in which female state law enforcement officers sought to return to work after receiving medical retirements for job-related injuries. In both cases, state-appointed doctors declared the women fit for duty, but the officers’ employers fought protracted and failed battles to keep them off the force.

The key decision in the other case took place in October 2015, when the Department of Justice lost its last appeal to prevent special agent Angie Resendez from returning to duty. She returned to work in 2016 and earned $709,000 in 2016 through a combination of her salary that year and the five years of back wages the department owed her for the time it spent fighting her reappointment.

“If you persevere, remain patient and stay focused, justice will prevail,” Resendez said when her union, the California State Law Enforcement Association, won that court ruling.

Hawkins, too, received a key decision in her favor in 2015, when an administrative judge rejected arguments from the CHP. Two years later, she’s still waiting for a final resolution to a case that began in 2008.

Hawkins’ efforts to regain her job are described in records published by the State Personnel Board and the California Public Employees’ Retirement System. Hawkins did not respond to messages from The Bee, and Lane declined to communicate with her about this story.

The personnel board displays a redacted version of the case prominently on its website because it considers the case a precedent-setting decision defining how public agencies should handle similar disputes in the future.

The ruling centered on a 2008 decision by CalPERS that Hawkins was healthy and fit for duty, allowing CalPERS to discontinue the medical retirement it awarded her in 2004 and the California Highway Patrol to rehire her as a sergeant. The CHP disputed that decision.

“No law enforcement agency should be required to reinstate a former peace officer who has had a long history of a psychiatric disorder, such as PTSD, and where there is a significant likelihood that the disorder will return should that peace officer resume duties which caused the disorder in the first place,” a deputy attorney general representing the CHP wrote in a 2011 filing.

Going forward, the personnel board wrote, law enforcement agencies cannot overrule CalPERS when CalPERS determines that an employee with a medical retirement is capable of working.

“A law enforcement employer has a mandatory duty to reinstate the individual seeking reinstatement after CalPERS has concluded that she is no longer incapacitated; and, the employing department may not require the individual to undergo any further medical or psychological assessment or screening before reinstating her,” the personnel board wrote.

Hawkins joined the CHP as a traffic officer in 1987 and earned a promotion to sergeant in 1997. She became a supervisor of a Los Angeles-based accident investigation team in 1998, managing officers who responded to fatal accidents, accidents in which CHP officers fired weapons and hazardous spills.

PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) is a mental health problem that some people develop after experiencing or witnessing a life-threatening event, like combat, a natural disaster, a car accident, or sexual assault.

By

CalPERS’ documents show that Hawkins began to experience anxiety and sleep disorders shortly after she joined the major accident team. Her condition worsened in 2000, when she was involved in a work-related accident. Depression set in. So did pain in her stomach.

Hawkins in 2001 filed a worker’s compensation claim and was off duty for several months. Three different doctors in 2003 and 2004 diagnosed Hawkins with PTSD. Their reports led CalPERS to grant Hawkins a medical retirement in 2004, removing her from duty and guaranteeing her a pension for the rest of her life.

The last doctor who met with her wrote, “Because all the work as a peace officer inherently involves dealing with scenes that would evoke post-traumatic memories, it is not possible for (Hawkins) to return to modified work as a peace officer without serious risk of exacerbation of her current mental and physical disorders,” according to CalPERS documents.

Those diagnoses and her medical retirement appeared to mark the end of Hawkins’ career as a law enforcement officer, but her next move set her on a road to recovery.

Hawkins moved to Kauai in 2004 and took a low-stress job for a police department. She conducted background checks there from 2005 to 2007.

Her headaches diminished. Her stomach pain eased, too.

Hawkins returned to Los Angeles and asked the state to go back to work. She told CalPERS that she was ready to handle the ugly scenes cops encounter, from fatal accidents to officer-involved shootings.

A psychiatrist appointed by CalPERS interviewed her and reviewed her medical records. The doctor cleared her for reinstatement.

But the CHP was not ready to bring her on the force.

It contested the recommendation from the CalPERS doctor and held up an opinion from a different psychologist who wrote that Hawkins “presents favorably,” but should not rejoin a police department. That psychologist, who works regularly for the State Personnel Board, wrote that returning to the CHP could “retrigger” Hawkins’ PTSD.

That disagreement went back and forth for years with each side bolstering its case with recommendations from additional doctors. Hawkins continued to collect her pension, and she worked for a private investigator.

Finally, a state administrative judge in July 2015 sided with Hawkins. Matthews Goldsby noted that none of the four doctors who evaluated Hawkins described her as impaired.

He ordered her back to work, and set the stage for CalPERS and the State Personnel Board to put her back on duty.

Hawkins “is presently capable of performing the usual duties of a CHP sergeant. Under the circumstances, reinstatement is mandatory,” Goldsby wrote.

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton. Sign up for state worker news alerts at sacbee.com/newsletters.