December 2017 Newsletter – Community College Districts
For Denial of Tenure Discrimination Cases, When the Statute of Limitations Begins to Run Differs in California State Court from Federal Court
California patterned the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) after the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Act’s Title VII. Both statutes are designed to prevent employment discrimination. However, the two statutes are not always interpreted in the same manner. The point in time at which the statute of limitations begins to run, specifically in denial of tenure cases, is one such departure.
If an employee brings a denial of tenure discrimination lawsuit under Title VII in federal court, the court will follow the United States Supreme Court. In denial of tenure cases, the United States Supreme Court has held that the statute of limitations for denial of tenure begins to run when tenure is denied and the employee learns of the denial, even though the employee is allowed to finish out the contract term. (Delaware State College v. Ricks (1980) 449 U.S. 250.) The Supreme Court’s rationale is that termination of employment at the end of the employment contract is merely the “delayed, but inevitable, consequence of the denial of tenure.” (Ricks, supra, at pp. 257-258.)
However, if the employee files the same lawsuit under FEHA in California state court, the California courts do not follow this rationale. In Rodriguez v. Los Angeles Community College Dist. (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 981, the court was looking at the exact same question. The court looked at the United States Supreme Court case of Delaware State College v. Ricks, and decided that the Supreme Court case was not determinative as to interpretation of the California, as opposed to federal, statute.
Instead, the court relied on a California Supreme Court case, Romano v. Rockwell International, Inc. (1996) 14 Cal.4th 479 – a case not involving denial of tenure, or even employment by a government entity. In that case, the California Supreme Court looked at a wrongful termination claim where there was a time gap between telling the employee that the employee was terminated and the actual termination. The court likened it to cases where there was a denial of tenure, and then termination at the end of the contract term. The California Supreme Court then stated that the United States Supreme Court’s rationale in Delaware State College v. Ricks did not apply to California law, and would not be followed. This was because, among other reasons, (1) under FEHA, termination was a separately actionable adverse employment action, (2) employees should not be required to sue an employer for wrongful termination while they are still employed, (3) there is always the chance the employer could change its mind, and (4) California interprets its laws liberally. As a result, the Court in Rodriguez v. Los Angeles Community College Dist. followed the California Supreme Court ruling in Romano.
The Los Angeles Community College District argued that the denial of tenure was not comparable to a wrongful termination because, under the Education Code, once tenure is denied, there is no choice but termination, and it was inevitable. The Rodriguez court acknowledged this difference, and acknowledged that the California Supreme Court case was not about tenure denial and therefore the discussion was dicta, but ruled that it could not ignore the California Supreme Court’s dicta because the Supreme Court was not required to say anything about tenure, but chose to do so anyway.
As a result, if a district is in federal court on a Title VII claim, the denial of tenure starts the statute of limitations for discrimination claims. If a district is in a California state court on a FEHA claim, however, the statute of limitations will not begin to run until the employment is actually terminated. This difference can be significant, especially if the employee has another year or more before his or her contract runs out. It has yet to be decided whether the California state courts would follow Delaware State College or Romano in a case brought under Title VII, especially after Rodriquez.
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