In Schifando v. City of Los Angeles, (2003 WL 23002284), the California Supreme Court addressed the issue of whether a city employee must exhaust both the administrative remedy that the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) provides and the internal remedy that a city charter provides before filing a lawsuit in superior court.
Employee, Steve 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 he became so upset that breathing became difficult and he started to sweat profusely, Employee resigned from his job. He filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (Department) and received a “right-to-sue letter”. 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 Employee’s lawsuit because he did not exhaust the administrative remedies provided by the City Charter. The Court of Appeal (Second District) agreed, and the California Supreme Court agreed to review the Court of Appeal decision.
Supreme Court Decision
The Supreme Court disagreed with the Court of Appeal, holding that “[t]he benefits of judicial economy, agency expertise, and potential for swift resolution of grievances are better served by a rule that allows aggrieved public employees to seek redress in the forum that is most appropriate to their situation.” According to the Court, while some employees will prefer the summary procedures included in the City Charter, others with more serious discrimination claims might prefer to pursue their civil rights under the FEHA, even if the litigation is lengthier and more expensive.
In reaching its decision, the Supreme Court focused on important differences between the City Charter and the FEHA procedures. Most importantly, the FEHA provides a neutral body to investigate charges of discrimination, while under the Charter, the City (the party accused of discrimination) would conduct the investigation. Furthermore, the Department bears the expense of investigating, reconciling, and, where necessary, prosecuting an employee’s claim, including providing an attorney for the employee. The City Charter does not provide the same protections. Additionally, if an employee were required to pursue both FEHA and City Charter procedures, procedural difficulties would arise, particularly regarding the issue of the statute of limitations.
Thus, the Court concluded that “municipal employees who claim they have suffered employment-related discrimination need not exhaust City Charter internal remedies prior to filing a complaint with the Department.” The Court sent the case back to the superior court for further proceedings.
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