According to the California Court of Appeal, a partner in a partnership is protected under the provisions of the California Fair Employment Housing Act (“FEHA”) if the partner complains that the partnership is retaliating against the partner because the partner complained about unlawful discrimination or harassment by the partnership against employees of the partnership. In Fitzsimons v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group, the California Court of Appeal drew a distinction between a partner alleging discrimination, harassment or retaliation by the partnership against the partner versus the partner complaining that the partnership is retaliating against the partner because the partner complained about unlawful discrimination or harassment by the partnership against employees of the partnership. Say that again?
Here’s what happened in the Fitzsimons case. The plaintiff (a woman partner in the medical practice) claimed that she was retaliated against for reporting that certain male officers and agents of the partnership had sexually harassed female employees. So, the issue was not whether the plaintiff could sue the partnership for sexual harassment against herself as an employee, but whether plaintiff could sue the partnership as a non-employee based on retaliation for complaining that employees of the partnership were sexually harassed. The Court held that under the FEHA, the partner can maintain such an action, even though the partner is not deemed an employee of the partnership.
The Court drew a distinction between the provisions of Title VII and the FEHA by highlighting that Title VII and the FEHA differ significantly. The Court explained that Title VII prohibits employers from retaliating against employees or applicants for employment, whereas the FEHA prohibits employers from retaliating against any person who opposes or challenges unlawful employment practices, such as discrimination or harassment. In Fitzsimons, the plaintiff was regarded as “any person” who opposed harassment of female employees by the officers and agents of the partnership.
Moral of the story: just because a partner is not regarded as an employee of the partnership, the partner still can sue the partnership for retaliation under the FEHA. The case is attached here: Fitzsimons v. California Emergency Physicians Medical Group.
Reflecting on the employer’s perspective on two decisions with national ramifications emanating from California last week, you have an unexpected victory from the Ninth Circuit on medical marijuana and an expected loss from the California Court of Appeal on the application of California law to a California-based officer of a Delaware corporation.
James v. City of Costa Mesa, 10-55769 (9th Cir. May 21, 2012) — The ADA Does Not Protect Medpot Users
The first of these decisions from the Ninth Circuit means that California employers are now free under state and federal law to prohibit marijuana use or possession in the workplace and working while under the influence. See also Ross v. Ragingwire Telecomms., Inc., 174 P.3d 200 (Cal. 2008) (no right to use or be under the influence of medical marijuana in the workplace under California disability discrimination laws).
In hearing a challenge to two California cities’ decisions to bar med-pot dispensaries within their borders, the Ninth Circuit in James held in a 2-1 vote that plaintiffs using medical marijuana under California law were not “individuals with disabilities” under the ADA and thus not entitled to its protections. Although the lawsuit was not an employment case, it nonetheless addressed the same definition of “individuals with disabilities” used in Title I of the ADA, the act’s employment provisions. Given a strong and reasoned dissenting opinion, one can expect a request for the Ninth Circuit to decide the matter en banc (through an 11-judge panel).
Lidow v. Superior Court (International Rectifier Corp.), B239042 (Cal. Ct. of App. May 23, 1012) — California Law Applies to Wrongful Discharge Claim of Corporate Officer
The second decision was far less surprising. There, a California court held that California law applied to the discharge of a Delaware corporation’s California-based CEO, despite the so-called “internal affairs” doctrine. Under that doctrine, matters involving a corporation’s “internal affairs” are governed by the law of the state of incorporation. In an acknowledged case of first impression, the Court of Appeal held that an employer’s discharge of its CEO for complaining about the company’s harmful or unethical policies was not an “internal” corporate matter and should be governed by California law. While it left open the possibility that another basis for discharge may invoke application of the doctrine, it is hard to imagine a circumstance where a California-based CEO or other corporate officer/employee would not be able to claim protection under California’s highly-protective, employee-friendly laws. The Court also rejected, on summary adjudication, the claim that the CEO was not an “employee” and merely an “officer.”
Corporations with California-based officers who may also be seen as employees should consider taking steps to prevent their identification of these officers as employees.
San Francisco partner Cheryl Orr and counsel Fey Epling wrote an article for The Recorder on recent trends that indicate a shift in the landscape of employer class actions, especially in the wake of Brinker Restaurant v. Superior Court.
Cheryl and Fey note that “employers across America are breathing a collective sigh of relief at the California Supreme Court’s ruling,” in Brinker, particularly its holding that “an employer satisfies its duties by providing and permitting breaks, as opposed to ensuring that their employees take them.” This is, however, “just the latest blow to putative class actions” they have observed as management-side class action defense practitioners.
The article outlines other factors, such as, a shift in the nature of filings, the choice of venue, the matter of class certification and a “greater sense of urgency for resolution” of litigation, that have all resulted in “a fairly dramatic shift in the class action landscape.”
To read the entire article, click here.