Fighting for Women's Equality

California Supreme Court Issues Major Decision on Employee Rights

December 1, 2003 | by
San Francisco — December 1, 2003 — Today the California Supreme Court issued a major decision on employee rights, in the case of Schifando v. City of Los Angeles. The California Fair Employment and Housing Act requires employees who believe they are discriminated against to first file a charge with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and then to obtain a “right to sue” letter from the agency before filing a court action. The Court held that this is all that is required, and that employees need not also pursue their employers’ internal grievance mechanism in order to take their claims to court. This is a major victory for employees. The decision was written by Justice Chin, and joined by Justices George, Kennard, Werdegar and Moreno. Justice Baxter wrote a dissent joined by Justice Brown.

Equal Rights Advocates filed a friend of the court brief on behalf of public employee Steve Schifando, whose Fair Employment and Housing Act case was dismissed because he failed to use the City Charter grievance appeal provided by the City of Los Angeles for its employees. Attorney Charlotte Fishman, the Director of Equal Rights Advocates’ Higher Education Legal Advocacy Project, wrote ERA’s amicus brief, which was joined by other major civil rights and public employee rights organizations. “I am ecstatic about this decision. It is a slam dunk in favor of employees. For years, employers have been trying to make it harder for employees to vindicate their right to be free from discrimination in the workplace, and the court has finally said “enough!” This decision will make a huge difference in the ability of public employees, from city workers to university professors, to obtain redress when they suffer discrimination. It also lets public employers know that they will no longer be able to hide their dirty laundry behind a curtain of endless procedural hurdles, or to avoid the consequences of discrimination by making it practically impossible for employees to bring their claims to court.”

Over a vigorous dissent by Baxter and Brown, the Court resoundingly rejected the employer’s claim that a doctrine in law, known as “the exhaustion of administrative remedies doctrine,” requires employees to “exhaust” employer-controlled grievance mechanisms before turning to the courts. In ruling for the employee, the majority made this highly significant pronouncement, with wide ranging effect outside the immediate context of employment discrimination law: “This court…has never held that exhaustion of an internal employer procedure was required where an employee made a claim under FEHA or another statutory scheme containing its own exhaustion prerequisite.” (emphasis added).

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