California Court Of Appeal Holds That An Employee Must Exhaust Administrative Remedies Under FEHA And City Charter Prior To Filing Suit

In Schifando v. City of Los Angeles, 2002 WL 475277, the California Court of Appeal, Second District, held that Steve Schifando was required to exhaust both the administrative remedy provided under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and the administrative remedy provided by the Los Angeles City Charter, prior to filing a lawsuit for employment discrimination.

Mr. Schifando, who suffers from severe hypertension, was employed by the City of Los Angeles (City). As a result of a very heated meeting with his supervisors, in which Mr. Schifando became so upset that breathing became difficult and he started to sweat profusely, Mr. Shifando resigned from his job. Mr. Schifando thereafter filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and obtained a right-to-sue-letter from the agency. He then filed an employment discrimination lawsuit against City, alleging that it forced him to resign because of his physical disability. The trial court dismissed Shifando’s lawsuit because he failed to exhaust the administrative remedies provided by the City Charter.

The Court of Appeal explained that the requirement that employees exhaust their administrative remedies before resorting to the courts allows an administrative agency to redress an alleged wrong without interference by the courts. Where a public entity provides an internal grievance procedure, an employee must comply with that grievance procedure before filing a lawsuit against the public entity. The Los Angeles City Charter provides that a person who is wrongfully discharged must file a demand for reinstatement with the Board of Civil Service Commissioners and a claim for compensation within ninety days. Mr. Schifando did not file such a demand.

Moreover, the Court of Appeal held that Mr. Schifando was required to exhaust the administrative remedies provided under both the City Charter and the FEHA. The Court noted that Mr. Schifando could have pursued both administrative remedies simultaneously, and that he would not have been prejudiced or unduly burdened by doing so. The Court concluded that requiring an employee to exhaust administrative remedies, under both the FEHA and the City Charter, would accord due respect to the respective agencies, and would increase the probability that the matter would be resolved without intervention by the courts.

The Court noted that two other Court of Appeal decisions had reached conclusions contrary to the conclusion reached in Mr. Schifando’s case. In Watson v. Department of Rehabilitation, (1989) 212 Cal.App.3d 1271, and Ruiz v. Department of Corrections, (2000) 77 Cal.App.4th 891, the respective Courts of Appeal held that a plaintiff alleging a cause of action under the FEHA did not also need to exhaust state civil service administrative remedies. However, the Schifando Court recognized that the California Supreme Court, in Johnson v. City of Loma Linda, (2000) 24 Cal.4th 61, had rejected an argument closely analogous to the one relied upon in Watson and Ruiz. The Supreme Court had explained, in Johnson, that the purposes of the FEHA are to expand employee remedies, and provide a comprehensive scheme to combat employment discrimination. The Court reasoned that its decision is consistent with the holding of Johnson, in that it accords respect to an agency’s administrative remedy, and does not allow the FEHA to supplant the other agency’s internal remedy.