In Williams v. Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles, — Cal. Rptr. 3d —, 2004 WL 1798114, Cal.App. 2 Dist., Aug. 12, 2004, the California Court of Appeal addressed the issue of whether a public employee who asserts claims under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), together with nonstatutory claims that are “FEHA-related” and nonstatutory claims that are not FEHA-related, must exhaust both FEHA’s administrative remedy and the employing agency’s internal administrative remedy before filing a lawsuit in superior court.
Michael D. Williams, an employee of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA), was demoted and ultimately terminated for job abandonment after he allegedly failed to follow a HACLA attorney’s advice not to obey a civil subpoena. HACLA’s internal grievance procedure permitted Williams to challenge the employment decisions. Williams filed administrative complaints under both FEHA and HACLA, but abandoned the HACLA procedure prior to filing a superior court case alleging retaliation in violation of FEHA and wrongful demotion and constructive termination in violation of public policy.
The trial court dismissed Williams’ complaint based on his failure to completely exhaust HACLA’s internal administrative remedy. Williams appealed.
The Court Of Appeal’s Decision
While Williams’ appeal was pending, the California Supreme Court decided Schifando v. City of Los Angeles (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1074, holding that a public employee alleging a FEHA violation was not required to exhaust both the administrative remedies of FEHA and the internal administrative remedies of his employer. As a result of Schifando, both HACLA and the Court of Appeal agreed that Williams was not required to exhaust HACLA’s internal administrative remedy with regard to his FEHA-based retaliation claim, and that the trial court’s decision should be reversed on that claim.
However, the Schifando decision did not address the other situation presented by Williams’ case, i.e., whether a public employee bringing a nonstatutory claim in addition to his or her FEHA claim must exhaust internal administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit. The Court of Appeal held the answer depends on whether the employee’s nonstatutory claim is “FEHA-related.”
The Court described three types of claims that might be asserted in an employment discrimination case: (1) a statutory claim based on violation of FEHA; (2) a nonstatutory claim based on violation of a public policy set out in FEHA (a “FEHA-related nonstatutory claim”); and (3) a common law, or nonstatutory, claim based on alleged violation of some other public policy. Because resolution of a FEHA-related nonstatutory claim in a public agency’s internal process would have a preclusive impact on the FEHA claim, the Court of Appeal held that the rule set forth in Schifando – exempting statutory FEHA claims from internal administrative procedures — must be extended to FEHA-related nonstatutory claims. However, subjecting nonstatutory claims which are not FEHA-related to the internal administrative process would not affect a FEHA claim; therefore, the Schifando exemption should not apply. A public employee seeking to couple a nonstatutory claim that is not FEHA-related with a FEHA claim thus would be required to exhaust internal administrative remedies as to the nonstatutory claim before he or she would be entitled to file a lawsuit in superior court asserting that claim.
Because Williams’ claims for wrongful demotion and constructive termination (due to his failure to follow instructions not to obey a subpoena) clearly were nonstatutory and not FEHA-related, the Court of Appeal rejected his argument that his “nonstatutory claims [should] ride to the courthouse” on his FEHA claim. The Court of Appeal therefore agreed with the trial court that Williams must exhaust HACLA’s internal administrative remedies as to those claims, and affirmed the trial court’s decision dismissing his complaint on those theories.
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