Key California Employment Law Case Summaries: April 2023
Nickson v. Shemran, Inc., 90 Cal. App. 5th 121 (2023)
A plaintiff maintains standing to pursue a non-individual PAGA claim in state court when his individual PAGA claim is sent to arbitration pursuant to an arbitration agreement.
In 2021, Plaintiff Blaine Nickson filed a single-count California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”) complaint against Defendant Shemran, Inc. and “Baron’s Market,” a fictitious business name under which Defendant operated grocery stores. Plaintiff alleged he was an hourly, non-exempt employee and that Defendant and “Baron’s Market” violated certain wage-and-hour provisions of the Labor Code. Plaintiff sought civil penalties on behalf of himself and other aggrieved employees. Defendant moved to compel arbitration. The trial court denied the motion to compel arbitration, citing Iskanian v. CLS Transportation Los Angeles, LLC , 59 Cal. 4th 348 (2014), as controlling law. Defendant appealed. During the pendency of the appeal, the United States Supreme Court held in Viking River Cruises, Inc. v. Moriana, 142 S.Ct. 1906 (2022), that the Federal Arbitration Act preempts Iskanian in part.
The California Court of Appeal reversed the order denying the motion to compel arbitration with directions to enter a new order granting the motion, but only with respect to Plaintiff’s individual PAGA claim. The court held that Plaintiff’s non-individual PAGA claims were to remain pending in the superior court, while his individual PAGA claim may be compelled to arbitration. The court reasoned that Kim v. Reins, 9 Cal. 5th 73 (2020), was the correct authority regarding standing to bring non-individual PAGA claims, and rejected the “dicta” from Viking River stating otherwise. In Kim, the California Supreme Court held that employees do not lose PAGA standing even after settling and dismissing individual PAGA claims. The court in Kim held that there are two requirements for PAGA standing. First, the plaintiff must be someone “who was employed by the alleged violator.” Second, the plaintiff must be a person “against whom one or more of the alleged violations was committed.” Applying Kim, the court of appeal found that PAGA standing for non-individual claims was not affected by the severing and compelling to arbitration of the individual PAGA claim. Therefore, the court held that Plaintiff had standing to litigate the non-individual PAGA claims in the superior court regardless of his agreement to arbitrate his individual claim.
As we have reported previously, though the California Supreme Court is currently considering the question in Adolph v. Uber Technologies, Inc., several decisions from the Court of Appeal in the last few months have come out with the same result as Nickson. The increasing number of such decisions from the intermediate appellate courts may very well portend the same outcome in Adolph.
Atkins v. St. Cecilia Catholic School, 90 Cal. App. 5th 1328 (2023)
The ministerial exception did not apply as a matter of law to a teacher at a religious school who neither taught religion nor engaged in religious activities with the students apart from an occasional end-of-day prayer.
Plaintiff Frances Atkins was an employee of Defendant St. Cecilia Catholic School for 40 years. In 2012, Plaintiff signed a job application for a “non-teaching staff” position at Defendant, which included checking a box stating that she was “willing to maintain, by word and actions, a position of role model and witness to the Gospel of Christ that is in conformity with the teachings, standards, doctrines, laws, and norms of the Roman Catholic Church as interpreted by the [Archdiocese of Los Angeles].” Plaintiff worked part-time as an art teacher and office administrator in her final year of employment. In 2018, the school’s principal decided that the school could no longer afford a fine arts teacher and eliminated Plaintiff’s teaching position. The principal did not offer Plaintiff the opportunity to continue working at the school as an office administrator either. A younger employee took over Plaintiff’s office administration duties. Plaintiff filed an action against Defendant for age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The trial court granted Defendant’s motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Plaintiff’s suit was barred by the ministerial exception, a constitutional doctrine that precludes certain employment claims brought against a religious institution by its ministers. Plaintiff appealed.
The California Court of Appeal reversed. On appeal, Plaintiff contended that she was not subject to the ministerial exception because of her secular job duties as an office administrator and art teacher. The court held that Defendant was not entitled to summary judgment because Plaintiff did not teach religion, nor was she required to. Apart from an occasional end-of-the-day prayer, Plaintiff did not lead the students in any religious activities or services and did not attend such services herself. Her agreement to conduct herself in accord with the teachings of the Catholic Church in the context of her office position did not show that Defendant entrusted her as a teacher responsible for forming the faith of the students. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to Plaintiff, the court held that triable issues of material fact existed and that Defendant was not entitled to summary judgment.
The ministerial exception was first endorsed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012, in a case called Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. EEOC, 565 U.S. 171 (2012). In the decade since Hosanna-Tabor was announced, the scope of the ministerial exception has remained a fraught and often-litigated topic. As reflected by Atkins, whether the exception will apply in any given circumstance is highly fact-specific, and will depend on the nature of the duties performed by the employee at issue. Religious institutions should consider carefully the duties performed by their employees before making a determination that the ministerial exception will apply to their employment practices.