CA Municipal Employees Can File Discrimination Claims With FEHA

December 3, 2003 ( - Municipal employees in California have the right to choose between filing on-the-job discrimination claims within their employers' internal grievance procedure or directly through the state's discrimination agency.

>The California State Supreme Court made the determination based on the court’s interpretation of the function of California’s Fair Employment and Housing Commission (FEHA), the state’s discrimination agency.   “”The opportunity for all public and private employees to vindicate civil rights is the primary intent of the FEHA, and … this is why plaintiffs have a choice between their civil service remedies and those provided by the FEHA,” Justice Ming Chin wrote for the majority in Schifandov. City of Los Angeles, according to a report in The Recorder.

>However, in the dissent, Justice Marvin Baxter fretted the court’s ruling would “eviscerate” the municipalities’ internal remedies and burden the courts with expensive litigation. “Under the majority’s holding, the road to possible conciliation, amicable settlement or mitigation of damages will first have to pass through the courthouse,” wrote Baxter.   Justice Janice Rogers Brown joined Baxter in the dissent.

Employer advocate groups applauded the court’s decision and see it as a boon to all public sector employees. Charlotte Fishman, a staff attorney at Equal Rights Advocates who filed an amicus brief on behalf of various employee organizations, called the decision a “total victory for employees.” She said the decision did not supplant an employer’s internal procedures, but gave workers the choice to pick the best forum. “So the idea is if you have a really good [internal system], people will use it. But if you don’t have a good one, people are going to go to the court system,” Fishman said.

Overall, the closely monitored case attached amicus briefs on both sides of the issue.

Case History

SteveSchifandoclaimed the city of Los Angeles discriminated against him because of a medical condition and forced him to give up his post as a shopkeeper with the Parks and Recreation Department. Schifando obtained a “right to sue” letter from FEHA and filed suit in a state Superior Court.

The city though said the suit was invalid sinceSchifandohad not exhausted his administrative remedies under the charter of the city of Los Angeles before taking his grievance to court.

California’s high court though determined exhausting the city charter’s procedures could effectively deprive an employee who is claiming discrimination of the rights afforded to all discrimination victims by the state legislature.   The justices noted that the city charter procedures were not as plaintiff-friendly as those in FEHA – which provide for longer statutes of limitations and payment for attorney costs – and FEHA is a completely neutral forum, whereas the city is both the defendant and the judge.

Additionally, the court noted that being forced to navigate two separate administrative processes would force the plaintiff to walk a “procedural minefield,” with the risk of missing filing deadlines in one forum while waiting to exhaust remedies in another forum.  
“We do not serve judicial economy if we require employees who have allegedly suffered discrimination at the hands of public employers to pursue redress in two separate forums,” Chin wrote. “To do so would frustrate legislative intent and create a procedural labyrinth that aggrieved employees, often not represented by counsel at the early stages of litigation, would likely be incapable of navigating.”