Wednesday, November 16, 2016
C.A. Revives Radio Personality’s Lawsuit Against Univision
Panel Says Sofia Soria Presented Substantial Evidence of Disability Bias
By KENNETH OFGANG, Staff Writer
A former Spanish-language radio host presented sufficient evidence of disability discrimination to survive her former employer’s motion for summary judgment, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled yesterday.
Div. Seven overturned Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Yvette Palazuelos’s ruling in favor of Univision Radio Los Angeles, Inc., owner of K-Love 107.5, where Sofia Soria worked from 1997 to 2011, and its parent company. The last nine years of her employment there was as host of the mid-day program, airing from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Soria filed suit in January 2013, charging the station with disability discrimination, failure to reasonably accommodate disability, and failure to engage in an interactive process, all in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act; denial of sick leave and retaliation, in violation of the California Family Rights Act; and termination in violation of public policy.
Soria alleged that the company’s asserted reason for her termination, repeated tardiness, was a pretext, and that Univision failed to accommodate her stomach tumor.
In opposition to the summary judgment motion, she said that doctors diagnosed the tumor in late 2010, and that—after a year of doctor visits that resulted in multiple absences from her program—she informed her supervisor that she would require surgery.
She was terminated shortly thereafter, she said. She also noted that her program enjoyed consistently high ratings, for which she earned pay raises and bonuses, as well as positive performance reviews.
Maria Nava, Soria’s direct supervisor for the last four months of her employment, however, testified she was not made aware of her specific medical issues until after she was terminated and that no request to take time off for surgery was made. Nava said that, about a month before the firing, she had instructed Soria she needed to arrive at the studio 30 to 60 minutes before the program in order to prepare.
Nava also said she notified her superior, a station vice president, that Soria was repeatedly late for work. When the situation persisted, Nava said, she and the vice president made the decision to terminate Soria’s employment.
Palazuelos, in granting summary judgment, said the plaintiff—whose tumor turned out to be non-cancerous—presented insufficient evidence that she had a disability, and that she failed to rebut the station’s evidence that she was terminated for tardiness and not because of a medical issue. She also said that Soria failed to request medical leave under the procedures required by CFRA.
Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss, however, writing for the Court of Appeal, said that there were triable issues of fact as to each of the six causes of action pled by the plaintiff.
The presiding justice acknowledged that Soria’s evidence of disability was vague, but said she was entitled to have that evidence liberally construed. Her complaint, he said, “adequately put Univision on notice that Soria claimed discrimination based on an ailment that limited a major life activity.”
The company, he said, should have probed for specifics in discovery before moving for summary judgment.
The evidence that Soria had to see a doctor because of the tumor, and that she was facing potential surgery, would permit a jury to infer that her absences from work were related to the tumor, and that she would require additional time off either for surgery and recovery, or for further monitoring of the tumor, Perluss said. This, he explained, would support her theory that the tumor limited a major life activity and thus constituted a disability under FEHA.
The trial judge, Perluss went on to say, apparently erred by accepting Univision’s argument that Soria’s failure to present medical information to the company precluded her discrimination claim as a matter of law. All she was required to do, the presiding justice said, was provide evidence that the person or persons who made the decision to fire her were aware of her disability.
Soria’s disputed testimony that she told Nava she had a tumor and faced possible surgery for it, and that she requested time off for surgery, was sufficient to establish a triable issue, the jurist said.
Perluss went on to say that there was sufficient circumstantial evidence that the company used tardiness as a pretext for discrimination.
Although Nava and others presented declarations, and testified in deposition, saying Soria was frequently late, and that the resulting lack of preparation affected her performance on the air, a jury might credit Soria’s contrary testimony, especially because there were conflicts among Univision’s witnesses as to how often she was late and how many times those employees notified the company of her tardiness, the presiding justice said.
Attorneys on appeal were David M. deRubertis and Kelly A. Knight of The deRubertis Law Firm, and N. Nick Ebrahimian of Lavi & Ebrahimian, for the plaintiff and Daniel P. Hoffer and Robert H. Pepple of Venable for the defendants.
The case is Soria v. Univision Radio Los Angeles, Inc., B263224.
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