This article is Part II of a two-part series.

Here are the rest of the most important employment law decisions from the California Supreme Court during the past year.

Gregory v. Cott (August 4, 2014)

The Cotts, an Alzheimer’s patient and her husband, contracted with a home health care agency for help to care for Mrs. Cott. The agency assigned Gregory to work in the home. While Gregory was washing a knife, Cott bumped into her, causing injury. She collected workers’ compensation benefits form her agency. But the question for the Court was whether the employee could sue the patient and husband for her injuries as well.

The Court applied the rule that an employee hired to perform dangerous work, who knows of the risk, is deemed to have “assumed the risk” of injury. Therefore, she cannot sue for damages when that known risk manifests itself. Courts have applied this rule to firefighters, veterinarians, and caregivers working in institutions.

The Court decided that violent behavior is a common symptom of Alzheimer’s disease and “the risk of violent injury is inherent in the occupation.” The employee assumed the risk, and could not recover for her injury against the family.

Patterson v. Domino’s Pizza (August 28, 2014)

Patterson, an employee of a Domino’s franchise, sued her employer and former manager for sexual harassment. She also sued Domino’s Pizza, LLC, the franchisor. Franchisor moved for summary judgment, arguing it was not the employer.

The Supreme Court agreed. Franchisees hold a personal financial stake in their business and oversee their employees’ daily performance. A franchisor may become liable if it has a general right of control over hiring, direction, supervision, discipline, discharge, and relevant day-to-day aspects of the workplace behavior of the franchisee’s employees. Here, franchisor lacked the requisite control. The Court found relevant several factors, including:

  • The language of the franchise agreement did not allow franchisor a say in day-to-day employment issues.
  • The franchisee exclusively controlled hiring, firing, and other employment decisions.
  • Though franchisor provided certain training to employees, the franchisee had exclusive control over sexual harassment training and “how employees treat each other” in the workplace.
  • Franchisee, not franchisor, had a complaint procedure for franchisee employees to report harassment.

Mendiola v. CPS Security Systems (January 8, 2015)

The employer employed security guards at construction sites. The guards had were required to be on-site for certain periods of time when they were deemed “on call,” but not actually working. Guards sued for wage and hour violations and successfully moved for summary judgment, arguing that on-call hours constituted “hours worked” under Wage Order No. 4. The issue for the Court was whether the employer sufficiently controlled the on-call time to transform it into “hours worked.”

The Court held the security guard company exercised sufficient control over its security guards to require payment for all hours spent “on call” as if they were hours worked. The Court balanced several relevant factors, including the on-premises living requirement; geographic restrictions on employee’s movements; the frequency of calls; the time limit for responding to calls; the ability to trade on-call responsibilities; the use of technology to ease restrictions; the ability to engage in personal activities; the agreement and whether the waiting time was primarily for the benefit of the employer and its business.

The employer required the guards here to reside in their trailers and spend on-call hours in their trailers. They had to respond, immediately and in uniform, if contacted by a dispatcher. Guards could request relief from the dispatcher, if no relief could be secured, guards could not leave the worksite. Even if relieved, guards had to report where they were going, were subject to recall, and could be no more than 30 minutes away from the site. The employer placed restrictions on nonemployee visitors, pets, and alcohol use.

Of note, the Court also held that the employer could not exclude sleep time from hours worked, primarily because the employer required the guards to sleep on-site. This case requires employers to carefully evaluate on-call agreements to avoid potentially significant wage liability.

Richey v. AutoNation (January 29, 2015)

The employee began preparations to open his own business and then injured himself. He began medical leave. Employer discharged Employee after finding him working at his restaurant during medical leave.

After the employee sued, the employer compelled arbitration. The arbitrator denied the employee’s claims, holding that California law permits discharge of an employee if the employer has an honest belief that the employee has misused medical leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA).

The California Supreme Court declined to decide that CFRA issue. The question for the Court was whether to overturn the arbitrator’s decision because the arbitrator misapplied California law. The Supreme Court refused to do so because errors of law are ordinarily not reviewable and because the evidence overwhelmingly demonstrated that the employer terminated the employee for legitimate business reasons.

Williams v. Chino Valley Independent Fire District (May 14, 2015)

The employee sued the employer for disability discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act. The trial court granted the employer’s motion for summary judgment. A winning litigant normally is entitled to recover costs of suit under California Code of Civil Procedure section 1032. These can include deposition transcripts, filing fees, witness fees, subpoena fees, and more. Courts in FEHA cases historically have granted the prevailing party costs as a “matter of right” under section 1032.

However, FEHA also contains a provision, Government Code section 12965(b), which allows prevailing parties to recover attorney’s fees and costs at the court’s discretion. Courts have historically granted attorney’s fees to employers under this section only if the plaintiff’s case was “frivolous, groundless, or without foundation.”

The Court held that section 12965(b) applies to FEHA actions, not section 1032. Thus, an unsuccessful FEHA plaintiff will not be ordered to pay the defendant‘s fees or costs unless the plaintiff’s case is frivolous, groundless, or without foundation.

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