Key California Employment Law Cases: June 2019

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This month's key California employment law cases involve EEOC charges, disability discrimination, and meal breaks.

Fort Bend County, Texas v. Davis, 139 S. Ct. 1843 (2019)

Summary:  Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional requirement to be in federal court, but rather mandatory processing rule whose violation must be raised by defendant in timely manner to avoid forfeiting defense.

Facts:  Plaintiff Lois Davis submitted an EEOC charge against her employer Fort Bend County, Texas, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting sexual harassment in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act.  While her charge was pending, plaintiff tried to add a Title VII religious discrimination claim, but failed to properly amend the EEOC charge.  Plaintiff filed an action in the federal district court advancing claims for religious discrimination in violation of Title VII, among other claims.  Defendant did not raise the issue of the defect in the EEOC charge until after the action had been litigated for several years and remanded back to the district court following an initial appeal.  Defendant argued that the defect in the EEOC charge was jurisdictional, and therefore the district court lacked jurisdiction.  The district court agreed with defendant and dismissed the claim.  The Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit reversed, holding that Title VII’s charge filing requirement is not jurisdictional, but only a prudential requirement whose noncompliance must be raised in a timely manner.  

Court’s Decision:  The United States Supreme Court affirmed, holding that Title VII’s charge-filing requirement is not jurisdictional; it is a mandatory processing rule whose violation must be raised or it is forfeited.  A rule can be mandatory without being jurisdictional, and Title VII’s charge-filing provisions indicate a party’s procedural obligations rather than limitations on a court’s jurisdiction.

Practical Implications:  In light of this decision, employers should ensure early in a case that each claim brought under Title VII has been properly alleged in the underlying EEOC charge. 

Ross v. County of Riverside, 36 Cal. App. 5th 580, 248 Cal. Rptr. 3d 696 (2019)

Summary:  Evidence that employee raised due process concerns and expressed belief that he may have disability raised triable issues of material fact regarding whether he engaged in protected activity and whether he had physical disability.

Facts:  Plaintiff Ross worked as a deputy district attorney for Riverside County.  In December 2011, he informed his supervisor and an assistant district attorney that he did not believe the office could prove one of his cases beyond a reasonable doubt, and therefore recommended further DNA testing of the defendant.  In May 2012 and May 2013, plaintiff received the results of two DNA tests, which exculpated the defendant.  He turned over the exculpating information to defense counsel.  However, the assistant district attorney appeared upset when he learned that plaintiff had turned over the DNA results.  The district attorney’s office dismissed the case after more exculpatory evidence came to light.  In May 2013, the same month he received the second DNA test results, plaintiff also learned that he was suffering a serious neurodegenerative disease.  He requested a transfer to another assignment as he was being tested for this disease, but his supervisor declined the request.  Plaintiff also asked not to be assigned new cases until he completed a medical exam, but his supervisor denied this request without explanation.  The chief deputy district attorney later offered to transfer plaintiff to the filing unit.  He declined this transfer because he believed the filing unit’s quotas were too stressful, but he asked not to receive any new cases, which the chief deputy agreed to.  Despite this initial agreement, the parties could not come to a compromise.  Plaintiff’s employment came to an end shortly thereafter when the county sent him a final notice of job abandonment.  He then sued the county for violations of California Labor Code section 1102.5 and the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  The county filed a motion for summary judgment on both claims, which the trial court granted on the grounds that plaintiff had not engaged in any protected activity and was not actually disabled.

Court’s Decision:  The California Court of Appeal reversed.  First, as to the section 1102.5 claim, the court explained that plaintiff’s efforts to get the case dismissed were part of his belief that continued prosecution would violate the defendant’s due process rights and his ethical obligations under state law, which constituted a protected activity under the statute.  As to the FEHA claim, the court noted that plaintiff provided the county with evidence that he suffered from symptoms of neurological disease.  Despite this, he continued to be assigned new cases.  Thus, there was sufficient evidence to create a dispute of fact about whether he should have been transferred to another unit with less stressors.

Practical Implications:  When an employer knows that an employee is disabled, they may need to engage in an interactive process with the employee to determine whether accommodations should be provided to enable the employee to perform the essential job functions, and whether non-essential job functions should be modified or eliminated.

Esparza v. Safeway, Inc., 36 Cal. App. 5th 42, 247 Cal. Rptr. 3d 875 (2019)

Summary:  Employer’s policy of not paying meal period premiums does not provide basis to seek restitution under California Business and Professions Code section 17200 without evidence that employer failed to provide meal periods.

Facts:  In 2007, plaintiffs filed a class action suit against defendant Safeway alleging that it failed to provide meal periods to its retail employees throughout California, and failed to pay one-hour premiums to employees when due.  Plaintiffs brought claims under California Labor Code section 226.7 and Business and Professions Code section 17200.  In 2013, plaintiffs obtained class certification on their section 17200 claim only, asserting the novel theory that defendant’s alleged failure to pay any meal period premiums before June 2007 was an unfair business practice, which subjected it to claims for restitution in amounts equal to the total value of premium payments under section 226.7 for all instances in which time records did not show a compliant meal period, regardless of the reasons for the noncompliance or whether defendant actually provided the meal periods.  The California Court of Appeal granted defendant’s writ petition, but affirmed the trial court’s order, finding that plaintiffs had sufficiently identified a common question.  Safeway Inc. v. Superior Court, 238 Cal. App. 4th 1138, 190 Cal. Rptr. 3d 131 (2015).  On remand, defendant moved for summary adjudication against the certified section 17200 claim, arguing that it sought to impose liability for every instance in which an employee did not take a full meal period, regardless of why it had occurred.  The trial court granted motion, explaining that plaintiff’s theory would impose liability on defendant regardless of whether it actually broke the law.  

Court’s Decision:  The California Court of Appeal affirmed.  Under Brinker Restaurant Corp. v. Superior Court, 53 Cal. 4th 1004, 139 Cal. Rptr. 3d 315 (2012), an employer satisfies its obligation to provide a meal break if it relinquishes control over the employee for an uninterrupted thirty-minute meal break and does not impede or discourage the employee from taking the break.  Brinker does not require an employer to police meal periods to ensure an employee does not work.  Thus, an employer is not automatically liable for every short, late or missed meal period.  As a result, restitution cannot automatically be sought for all noncompliant meal periods.  An employee seeking a classwide remedy must prove on a classwide basis that the employer actually failed to provide the meal periods in question.

Practical Implications:  While this case reinforces the Brinker rule that employers are not legally required to police meal periods that are lawfully provided, doing so can provide helpful evidence to defend a class action lawsuit.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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