What Is the Exhaustion of Remedies Requirement in California Employment Disputes?

Hardin Law Group

Under California law, employees who wish to bring a claim for employment discrimination, harassment, or retaliation must exhaust their administrative remedies before filing a lawsuit in state court. To exhaust their remedies, employees must first file a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing, which investigates the claim. Following an investigation, the Department attempts conciliation, an informal dispute resolution process between the employee and employer that avoids resorting to the courts. A recent California appellate decision affirmed a grant of summary judgment to an employer after the employee failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

The Facts of the Case

According to the recent opinion, the employee worked for the California Department of Veterans Affairs as a registered nurse at the Knight Veterans Home (“Knight Home”). The Department fired the employee after concluding that he sexually harassed female employees and injured patients by providing substandard care. The employee unsuccessfully appealed his firing to the State Personnel Board. He later filed an administrative complaint of employment discrimination with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (“the Department”) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

In his complaint, he claimed that he had suffered sex discrimination for over three months. He also alleged retaliation for reporting discrimination after the employer denied him an opportunity to receive overtime pay. The employee named a supervising facility administrator, who worked 60 miles from the Knight Home, as a primary instigator of the discrimination. The Department found no evidence of sex discrimination and issued the employee a right to sue notice. In his court filing, the employee alleged race and national origin discrimination and sexual harassment by two colleagues at the Knight Home over the course of three years. The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of the Department of Veterans Affairs. The employee appealed.

The Appellate Decision

The appeals court affirmed the trial court’s ruling because the employee failed to exhaust his administrative remedies. Under California law, employees who wish to bring a lawsuit under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) must first “exhaust the administrative remedy” under FEHA. To do so, the employee must file an administrative complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing that sets forth the details of the allegations. The employee’s court claims must be “like and reasonably related” to the claims in their administrative complaint. The complaint must also include sufficient evidence to facilitate an administrative investigation and provide the Department an opportunity to discover the conduct alleged in the complaint.

In this case, the appeals court found that the employee’s claims were not like or reasonably related to the claims in his administrative complaint. First, the administrative complaint focused on sex discrimination and identified no other basis for discrimination or retaliation. By contrast, the complaint to the trial court alleged race and national origin discrimination as well as sexual harassment. Second, the administrative complaint identified one person as the perpetrator over a period of three and a half months. However, the court complaint named two different perpetrators and alleged the harassment occurred for three years.

Finally, the two alleged perpetrators worked at the Knight Home with the employee, whereas the supervisor named in the administrative complaint worked at a facility much farther away. Consequently, the appeals court found that the claims in the court complaint were unrelated to the claims in his administrative complaint. The investigation would not have uncovered the conduct that became the focus of the complaint. This deprived the Department of the opportunity to investigate the new allegations. Therefore, the appeals court upheld the trial court’s decision granting summary judgment to the employer because the employee failed to exhaust his administrative remedies.

Speak with an Experienced LA Employment Lawyer

If you have questions about how the exhaustion requirement will affect your employment discrimination claim, contact the Hardin Law Group for assistance.

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