Tuesday, October 28, 2008
FEHA Statute of Limitations Subject to Equitable Tolling—S.C.
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
The one-year limitation period for filing administrative claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act is subject to equitable tolling, the California Supreme Court ruled yesterday.
Affirming a ruling by Div. Five of this district’s Court of Appeal, the high court said lawmakers did not intend to bar plaintiffs from claiming that traditional equitable considerations excuse the failure to file within the one-year period.
Justice Kathryn M. Werdegar wrote for a unanimous court, which concluded that a woman claiming to be the victim of a longstanding pattern of racial discrimination at Antelope Valley Community College had a triable issue with respect to her contention that the one-year period was tolled while she pursued remedies within the college personnel system.
Sylvia Brown, an African American, was one of three plaintiffs who sued the district. While Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Highberger granted summary judgment for the college district against all three plaintiffs, Brown was the only whose claims made it to the Supreme Court.
The other plaintiffs were John McDonald and Sallie Stryker.
McDonald’s claim was held timely by the Court of Appeal because he presented evidence of a continuing series of violations, the last of which occurred less than a year before he filed his administrative claim. Stryker was found by the Court of Appeal to have failed to exhaust administrative remedies because the allegations in her Superior Court complaint materially varied from those in her administrative claim.
Brown, a library technician’s assistant, claims that she was denied an interview for a promotion due to her race—despite the fact that her union contract required the college to interview all in-house applicants who met the minimum qualifications—and that when the person who got the job was later forced to resign over performance issues, she was again denied an interview for the job, which went to a non-black candidate.
The latter denial, she alleged, was also in retaliation for her having filed a complaint about the earlier denial with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Triable Factual Issues
Los Angeles Superior Court Judge William Highberger granted summary judgment to the college, finding that Brown did not file her administrative complaint in time. The appellate courts, however, found that there were triable issues of fact.
Werdegar explained that Brown’s delay in filing with the Fair Employment and Housing Commission may be excused based on evidence that, during all but eight months of the period between the allegedly unlawful actions and the FEHC filing, she was pursuing internal remedies with school administrators or the elected college board.
The college district, citing the legal maxim inclusio unius est exclusio alterius, contended that because FEHA includes specific exceptions to the one-year limitation, none of which apply in Brown’s case, the application of any other exception, such as equitable tolling, is precluded.
It also cited Schifando v. City of Los Angeles (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1074, which held that exhaustion of other administrative remedies is not a prerequisite to bringing a FEHA claim. Since Brown was not required to pursue internal remedies within the district, it argued, her doing so did not equitably toll the time in which file a FEHA claim.
But Werdegar noted that there is considerable support for the argument that the time in which to pursue a statutory remedy is equitably tolled while the claimant voluntarily pursues an alternative remedy.
This is particularly true, the justice said, with respect to the California Community Colleges, which have enacted specific internal remedies for FEHA violations by regulation.
There is nothing in FEHA, the justice added, that expressly precludes equitable tolling or from which legislative intent to preclude it may be implied, nor does equitable tolling categorically conflict with the fundamental public policy underlying FEHA.
The case is McDonald v. Antelope Valley Community College District, 08 S.O.S. 5880.
Copyright 2008, Metropolitan News Company