Monday, October 29, 2007

Reliance Upon Statements by the DFEH Justify Equitable Relief From an Untimely Administrative Filing

Description of Conversations With DFEH Representatives Were Not Hearsay Because They Were Offered to Prove the Plaintiff's State of Mind

Holland v. Union Pacific Railroad Co. (July 30, 2007, certified for publication 8, 29, 2007, C052833, Third District)

This post was on hold for quite a while for a reason that is now moot, this is as good a time as any to post it. None of the other out of chronological order cases will go back any later than late September.

This decision raises interesting procedural and jurisdictional questions. I am also happy to announce that it is the first team blog for the California Civil Litigation blog. On the California Blog of Appeal, Greg May is blogging about the Court of Appeal's resolution of the plaintiff's claim that the court commissioner who ruled on the summary judgment motion did not have jurisdiction over the matter. This post will address the substantive question of the plaintiff's untimely filing of an administrative complaint.

In this action for employment disability discrimination, plaintiff Holland alleges that his employer, Union Pacific Railroad Company, failed to make proper accommodations for his disability when it placed him on medical leave from July 2, 2002 to October, 2002.

Holland filed an administrative complaint with the DFEH on July 15, 2003, and later filed this lawsuit. UPRR brought a motion for summary judgment on the grounds that Holland's administrative complaint was not filed within the one year deadline in Government Code section 12960. UPRR argued that because Holland missed the deadline for his mandatory administrative complaint, he could not maintain an action at law.

Holland argued that his untimely filing should be excused because he had relied upon the assurances of a DEFH representative that by completing a pre-complaint questionnaire he had met the administrative deadline. Holland supported this argument with a declaration in which he described his conversations with DEFH representatives. UPRR objected to Holland's declaration on the grounds that it was inadmissible hearsay. The trial court agreed, and granted UPRR summary judgment.

Failure to exhaust an administrative remedy does not deprive a court of subject matter jurisdiction. Therefore equitable relief for missing the deadline can be granted when appropriate. One basis for equitable relief is if inaccurate advice from the DEFH reasonably misled the complainant through no fault of his own. If Holland's declaration was admissible, it would be inequitable to fault him.

The Court of Appeal held that the trial court had erred in ruling that the Holland declaration was inadmissible hearsay. The declaration was not being offered for proof of the facts it contained but for proof of Holland's state of mind. It was Holland's reaction to statements by the DFEH representatives that was at issue. An extrajudicial statement that is offered to prove the hearer's state of mind is not hearsay. Holland's declaration should have been admitted and he should have been given an equitable excuse for his untimely administrative complaint.
Presiding Justice Davis wrote the opinion. Justices Nicholson and Hull concurred.

Comment: I can't help wondering why this case is being litigated. Based upon the limited description of the allegations, Holland's complaint is that he lost four months pay because of disability discrimination. While the loss of four month's wages is a substantial blow to almost anyone, it is rarely a loss big enough to justify litigation. Under Government Code section 12965(b) a court may, at its discretion, award a prevailing party reasonable attorney fees and expert witness costs, but no one can count on that. However, the Court of Appeal specifically stated that it was not providing a detailed summary of the plaintiff's allegations, so other allegations in the complaint may explain the decision to litigate.

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