January 8, 2021

Key California Employment Law Cases: December 2020

Shirvanyan v. Los Angeles Community. College District, No. B296593, 2020 WL 7706321 (Cal. Ct. App. Nov. 30, 2020)

Summary: The availability of a reasonable accommodation is an element of a claim under the Fair Employment and Housing Act for failure to engage in the interactive process.

The Workers’ Compensation Act does not bar emotional distress damages where those damages arise from an employer’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations or engage in an interactive process, rather than because of a physical injury suffered at work. 

Facts: Plaintiff Anahit Shirvanyan, an assistant kitchen worker for Defendant Los Angeles Community College District, was diagnosed with nerve damage and carpal tunnel in her wrist in 2014. She notified her supervisors of her carpal tunnel and wrist pain and often sought help from coworkers performing her kitchen tasks. Her supervisors never altered Plaintiff’s job duties or gave Plaintiff time off to address her wrist issue. In December 2015, Plaintiff injured her shoulder opening the door of a dishwasher and was placed off work by her doctor until March 2016. Thereafter, she did not return to work and did not provide any further paperwork requesting an extension of her leave. Plaintiff sued Defendant alleging disability discrimination, failure to engage in the interactive process, and failure to provide reasonable accommodation, all in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). She alleged that she developed a depressive disorder as a result of Defendant’s conduct. At the close of Plaintiff’s case-in-chief, Defendant moved for nonsuit, arguing that Plaintiff failed to prove that there was an available and effective reasonable accommodation that could have been made at the times Plaintiff alleged Defendant failed to engage in the interactive process. The court rejected Defendant’s motion, holding that the availability of a reasonable accommodation is not an element of an interactive process claim, and instructed the jury accordingly. The jury rejected Plaintiff’s disability discrimination claim, but found in Plaintiff’s favor on her interactive process and reasonable accommodation claims and awarded economic and noneconomic damages. Defendant moved for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on the grounds that (1) the evidence presented did not support the availability of a reasonable accommodation during the relevant time frame, and (2) the damages arose from injuries at work and were thus recoverable only through workers’ compensation. The court denied the motion, and Defendant appealed. 

Court’s Decision: The California Court of Appeal reversed as to the issue of whether the availability of a reasonable accommodation is an element of an interactive process claim, which necessitated a retrial, but held that the Workers’ Compensation Act did not bar the portion of the FEHA claims to be retried. The availability of a reasonable accommodation is an element of a claim under FEHA for failure to engage in the interactive process. While the court found that substantial evidence supported a finding that reasonable accommodations were available to accommodate Plaintiff’s wrist injury, Plaintiff failed to identify a reasonable accommodation for her shoulder injury. The Workers’ Compensation Act did not bar Plaintiff’s noneconomic damages stemming from her depressive disorder because those damages allegedly arose from her employer’s failure to provide reasonable accommodations or engage in an interactive process, rather than because of her wrist injury. Because the jury verdict form did not specify whether the employer’s response to one or both of Plaintiff’s injuries violated FEHA, the court of appeal ordered a retrial as to the employer’s response to Plaintiff’s wrist injury only.

Practical Implications: Though this case provides much needed clarity on the elements of an interactive process claim, it is also an important reminder to employers about the need to engage in a good-faith interactive process with employees when they request an accommodation for a disability. As a best practice, employers are encouraged to carefully document all steps in the interactive process, including potential accommodations that were explored and all communications with the employee. Maintaining this log is especially important if the employer concludes that there is no reasonable accommodation available.

Gulf Offshore Logistics, LLC v. Superior Court, No. 2D CIV. B298318, 2020 WL 7137048 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 7, 2020)

Summary: California wage-and-hour laws applied to non-California residents working for a non-California employer because the employees performed most of their work in California and their work operations were based in California. 

Facts: Plaintiffs, who were non-California residents, worked as crew members providing maintenance services to offshore oil platforms for Gulf Offshore Logistics, LLC and JNB Operating, LLC (“Defendants”) on a vessel that docked exclusively in California for more than six years. Although Defendants’ administrative functions were performed at their headquarters in Louisiana, the vessel was registered in Louisiana, and Plaintiffs were not residents of California, Plaintiffs reported to work in California and continued to work while the vessel was in port. Plaintiffs traveled between California, federal, and international waters. Plaintiffs sued Defendants alleging violations of California’s wage-and-hour laws including those relating to minimum wage and overtime, providing meal and rest periods, maintaining accurate work records, and providing complete wage statements. Defendants moved for summary judgment on the grounds that Louisiana, rather than California, law governed these employment relationships and that the Fair Labor Standards Act (“FLSA”) preempted California law with respect to these employees. The trial court denied Defendants’ motion. But in February 2020, the California Court of Appeal, applying a conflict of laws analysis, reversed, concluding that Louisiana law governed because that state had more significant contacts with the parties and a greater interest in regulating the employment relationships at issue. Plaintiffs petitioned for review with the California Supreme Court, which granted review and transferred the matter back to the court of appeal for reconsideration. 

Court’s Decision: On reconsideration, the court of appeal held that California’s wage-and-hour laws applied to Plaintiffs. The California Supreme Court clarified in Oman v. Delta Air Lines, Inc., 9 Cal. 5th 762 (2020), that for purposes of some Labor Code provisions the relevant consideration for choice of law analysis is the location in which the work is performed. Here, that location was California. Other considerations, such as the residence of the employees or the location of the employer, are not relevant. Plaintiffs performed most of their work in California because the relevant port and channels where they worked were within the state’s borders. California was the base for their work because they reported to work in California and the vessel docked exclusively in California. In addition, California had a greater interest than Louisiana in regulating the employment relationship because Plaintiffs performed their work in California rather than in Louisiana. The court of appeal also held that California’s wage-and-hour laws were not preempted by the FLSA because the FLSA does not expressly preempt them, nor does it conflict with California’s statutes.

Practical Implications: Determining which state’s law applies to an interstate employment relationship can be challenging. As we previously reported, the California Supreme Court’s recent decisions in Oman and Ward v. United Airlines, Inc. made clear that the analysis can vary depending on which Labor Code provision is at issue. While Gulf Offshore Logistics generally stands for the proposition that “California’s wage-and-hour laws apply to workers who perform all or most of their work in California,” employers with interstate employment relationships are encouraged to keep abreast of this evolving area of law as courts continue to refine and apply the Supreme Court’s holdings in Oman and Ward.

Rojas-Cifuentes v. Superior Court., No. C085463, 2020 WL 7488653 (Cal. Ct. App. Dec. 21, 2020)

Summary: Plaintiff satisfied the Private Attorneys General Act notice requirement by providing his employer and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency with sufficient facts and theories supporting his claims. 

Facts: Prior to filing suit under the California Labor Code Private Attorneys General Act (“PAGA”), Plaintiff Miguel Angel Rojas-Cifuentes provided a letter to his former employer, Defendant American Modular, and the Labor and Workforce Development Agency (“LWDA”) alleging that Defendant systematically failed to pay current and former California non-exempt employees. Specifically, the letter alleged that Defendant violated California law by failing to keep accurate time and payroll records, failing to compensate employees for substantial portions of their workday, requiring or knowingly permitting employees to work before and after their shifts without compensation, rounding time to employees’ detriment, failing to compensate for time spent donning and doffing, automatically deducting time for meal periods not taken or completed, and manipulating time to avoid compensating for overtime and all hours worked. The letter also stated Plaintiff’s intent to file a civil action against Defendant under PAGA. The trial court granted summary adjudication against Plaintiff as to his PAGA claim for failure to comply with the PAGA notice requirements, a prerequisite to bringing a PAGA claim. It found that Plaintiff failed to provide notice of the facts and theories in support of his PAGA claim because Plaintiff’s notice merely quoted or mimicked the language of the statutes, was nonspecific as to who was harmed, and failed to identify Plaintiff’s position and employment status. Plaintiff filed a petition for writ of mandate.

Court’s Decision: The California Court of Appeal granted the petition and directed the trial court to set aside the summary adjudication. Before bringing a PAGA action, a plaintiff is required to first provide notice to his or her employer and the LWDA “of the specific provisions of [the Labor Code] alleged to have been violated, including the facts and theories to support the alleged violation.” The court of appeal noted that PAGA requires few facts and theories to satisfy its notice requirement because requiring more would undercut the legislature’s intent to remediate and deter labor law violations. Plaintiff’s notice sufficiently explained the general basis for some of his claims and identified specific unlawful practices. Furthermore, although it was a broad class, Plaintiff’s notice satisfactorily specified that his employer harmed current and former California non-exempt employees through its violations. Moreover, Plaintiff sufficiently identified himself as an aggrieved employee and indicated that he was employed at some point by Defendant as a non-exempt employee. 

Practical Implications: This case will make it more difficult for employers to successfully challenge PAGA claims based on failure to comply with the statute’s administrative exhaustion requirements.