Friday, August 1, 2014
Court Affirms Attorneys Fees to County in Bias Suit
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A suit against Los Angeles County by a social worker who was dismissed from his job because a psychiatrist determined he was completely unable to work was frivolous, the Court of Appeal for this district has ruled in upholding an award of attorney fees to the county.
Div. Four Wednesday upheld an award of more than $73,000 against Robert Villafana, who worked for the Department of Children and Family Services.
Villafana alleged that in 1991, he noticed that a fellow employee had left a child and parent unsupervised in what was supposed to be a monitored visitation. During the unmonitored portion of the visitation, the parent molested the child.
Villafana reported this incident to his supervisor and other individuals in 1991, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2004 and 2008. Villafana was absent often from work, claiming stress caused by the incident and by the county’s failure to investigate it.
Villafana’s last day at work was in 2000. In 2003, Villafana was certified “permanently psychiatrically disabled.”
In 2004, he was approved for Social Security disability benefits based on “total disability” as of September 2000. In 2008, a psychiatrist certified that Villafana was completely unable to work, and the county notified him of its intent to release him from employment due to his medical condition.
The county did dismiss Villafana without prejudice, so that he could reapply if his medical condition improved, but in 2009 he filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing. A year later, he sued the county on multiple causes of action, including Fair Employment and Housing Act claims for discrimination based on age, religion, national origin, ancestry, disability, and his pattern of complaints; and for retaliation.
In 2012, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Alan Rosenfield granted summary judgment to the county and granted attorney fees on the ground that Villafana’s lawsuit was “frivolous, unreasonable, or without foundation.” within the meaning of FEHA.
Villafana took separate appeals from the final judgment and the attorney fee award. The judgment was affirmed in an unpublished opinion in March.
In concluding that the trial judge was also correct as to the attorney fee issue, Presiding Justice Norman Epstein said Wednesday in an unpublished opinion that to be entitled to attorney fees, the county “needed only to show that Villafana’s claims were patently baseless.”
The court did find Villafana’s claims baseless. Epstein said that Villafana offered no evidence to support any of his claims.
No evidence of violations of FEHA, of retaliation, of discrimination, of any wrongdoing by the county, was offered by Villafana, other than his “belief” that he was wronged, the presiding justice said.
Further, Epstein reasoned, Villafana’s retaliation claim failed “because he did not show a causal link between his reports of the 1991 incident and his 2008 release.” His last complaint was in 2004, four years before the county’s decision to release him.
There was no basis for his claim that the county waited until 2008 to respond in retaliation for his previous complaints, the jurist said.
Villafana’s harassment claim failed because “harassment focuses on situations in which the social environment of the workplace becomes intolerable,” the jurist added. Epstein said it was unreasonable “to claim an intolerable social environment at the workplace inside of the statutory period because [Villafana] had not been at the workplace since 2000.”
As to Villafana’s disability discrimination claim, Epstein wrote, “this too failed not just because he did not present sufficient evidence; he presented no evidence at all, other than his own belief, to show that he would be able to perform his essential job duties.” The presiding justice cited the physician’s certification that Villafana could not work in any capacity, even on a part-time basis.
Epstein described the amount of the award as reasonable, and noted that the county had itemized its expenditures, delineating different amounts for each month based upon the number of hours spent defending the case during that month.
While a plaintiff’s inability to pay may be considered in setting fees under FEHA, the jurist noted, Villafana failed to present any evidence on the issue.
“Instead, in his opposition to the county’s motion for attorney fees he argued in conclusionary fashion that an attorney fee order would ‘absolutely lead to [his] financial ruin’ and that his job and medical condition do not reflect a person of ‘large earnings capacity or potential,’” the jurist wrote. “Appellant’s unsupported argument in his brief does not constitute evidence.”
This case is Villafana v. County of Los Angeles, B246866.
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