October 16, 2018

Key California Employment Law Cases: September 2018

This month’s key employment law cases involve the ministerial exception to employment laws and disability discrimination.

Sumner v. Simpson Univ., No. C077302, 2018 WL 4579765 (Cal. Ct. App. Sept. 25, 2018)

Summary:  Ministerial exception does not bar breach of contract claim for professor at religious university if claim does not require review of religious qualifications or performance.

Facts:  Plaintiff was dean of a theology seminar at defendant university, a California nonprofit religious corporation.  Plaintiff taught courses that were all religious in nature.  She was responsible for developing the religious curriculum, and she considered religious issues in deciding who to appoint as faculty members.  She also claimed her spiritual gifts included evangelism, leadership, teaching and pastoring.  The acting provost terminated plaintiff on the ground she was insubordinate.  Plaintiff sued for breach of her employment contract.  Defendant moved for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff’s employment fell within the ministerial exception.  The exception bars the application of civil rights laws to church employment relationships with ministers, as the Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution protects a church’s right to decide matters of governance and internal organization.  According to defendant, review of plaintiff’s employment-related dispute was precluded by the First Amendment.  The trial court agreed and granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor.  

Court’s Decision:  The California Court of Appeals reversed.  The court first determined that the university was a religious group for the purposes of the First Amendment.  Its bylaws stated it was a Christ-centered learning community, and provided that the university should only employ active Christian individuals.  The court also determined plaintiff was a minister for purposes of the exception.  However, her position as a minister did not necessarily preclude a contract claim based on her written employment agreement.  The interpretation of the contract did not require the court to resolve a religious controversy.  Specifically, the stated reason for plaintiff’s dismissal was insubordination, which was defined in the faculty handbook as the willful refusal to follow directives or perform work properly, as assigned by a supervisor.  At issue was plaintiff’s emails about campus operations without advance approval of her supervisor, the provost, as well as group emails critical of university leadership.  Reviewing plaintiff’s contract cause of action would not require the court to wade into doctrinal waters because it would not require a review of her religious qualification or performance as a religious leader.  

Practical Implications:  Since nonprofit religious corporations are excluded from the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, and since employees with religious duties are subject to the ministerial exception, they are not able to bring most employment-related claims in a secular court.  However, an employment termination for religiously-neutral reasons may be reviewable by a court if no assessment of doctrine or the inner workings of a religious organization is involved.




Nunies v. HIE Holdings, No. 16-16494, 2018 WL 4390791 (9th Cir. Sept. 17, 2018)

Summary:  Employee in disability discrimination action not required to present evidence of employer’s subjective belief that he had major life activity limitations.   

Facts:  Plaintiff, a delivery driver, sued defendant employer alleging disability discrimination under the Americans with Disabilities Act (“ADA”).  Plaintiff requested a transfer to a part-time, less-physical warehouse job.  Plaintiff attributed his desire to switch to pain he developed in his left shoulder.  Defendant contended that plaintiff wanted to transfer so he could focus on his independent side-business.  The requested transfer was approved and set to go until plaintiff told defendant about his shoulder injury.  Two days after he allegedly disclosed his injury, defendant rejected his transfer request and forced him to resign.  The federal district court granted summary judgment in defendant’s favor on three grounds.  First, plaintiff did not meet the definition of physical disability under the ADA because he had not established that his shoulder injury substantially limited a major life activity.  Second, plaintiff did not establish a record of impairment.  Finally, plaintiff did not establish that defendant regarded him as having a disability because he did not come forward with any evidence that his employer subjectively believed he was substantially limited in a major life activity.

Court’s Decision:  The Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed.  First, it was error for the district court to require plaintiff to present evidence that his employer believed he was substantially limited in a major life activity.  Under the ADA Amendments Act of 2008 (“ADAAA”), a plaintiff must show that he or she was subjected to a prohibited action because of an actual or perceived physical or mental impairment, whether or not the impairment limited or was perceived to limit a major life activity.  Prior to the ADAAA, to sustain a regarded-as claim, a plaintiff had to provide evidence that the employer subjectively believed the plaintiff was substantially limited in a major life activity.  Here, a reasonable jury could conclude that defendant effectively terminated plaintiff because of its knowledge of plaintiff’s shoulder injury, especially considering the timing of plaintiff’s disclosure, his transfer request, and eventual termination.  Thus, plaintiff established a genuine issue of material fact as to whether his employer regarded him as having a disability.  Second, the district court erred in concluding that plaintiff did not meet the ADA disability definition.  There was at least a dispute about whether plaintiff’s shoulder injury substantially limited the life activities of working and lifting.  Thus, summary judgment was improper.  

Practical Implications:  Nunies highlights the importance of timing in discrimination cases.  While not deciding whether plaintiff had an ADA-protected disability, the court concluded that a reasonable jury could conclude that the company effectively terminated plaintiff because of its knowledge of the driver’s shoulder injury.  An employee’s injuries or disclosed disabilities should go into an employer’s risk analysis for termination decisions, especially if they occur in quick succession.