Rommel v. Los Angeles Unified School District, No. B253405 (December 5, 2014): In a recent unpublished ruling, the California Court of Appeal reversed a trial court’s judgment in favor of a school district and against a teacher who claimed that she was fired while on disability leave as a result of a computer error. The court found that the one-year statute of limitations for filing a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) was equitably tolled while the teacher attempted to have her employment status corrected.

Gloria Rommel was a certificated school teacher who became disabled during her employment with the Los Angeles Unified School District. The school district approved Rommel’s request for a leave of absence. In 2009, the school district notified Rommel that “she was on an ‘unauthorized’ leave” and that she was absent without leave (AWOL). The school district gave her 10 days to respond. When Rommel contacted the school, the head secretary told her that her AWOL status was due to a computer error. She again applied for leaves of absence, which the school district approved.

Because of another computer error, Rommel was simultaneously designated as being both on authorized and unauthorized leave. As a result, her employment was terminated for being AWOL. In 2010, the State Teachers Retirement System notified Rommel that her retirement benefits—including medical insurance—were affected by her “failure to report” status. The school district later told Rommel that she was not entitled to medical benefits because her status with the school district was “severed.” At this point, Rommel filed a workers’ compensation claim and sought reinstatement, but the school district maintained that her employment was justifiably terminated due to her AWOL status. In 2012, after investigating the situation, the school district notified Rommel that it would not reinstate her.

Rommel then filed a disability discrimination claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). In February of 2013, Rommel filed suit against the school district alleging disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in the interactive process. The school district demurred arguing that (1) the one-year statute of limitations for filing an administrative complaint with the DFEH was barred and that (2) Rommel failed to state valid causes of action for disability discrimination, failure to accommodate, and failure to engage in the interactive process. The trial court sustained the school district’s demurrer and Rommel appealed.

The court ruled that even if the statute of limitations was triggered as early as 2010 (as the school district maintained), it was equitably tolled while Rommel attempted to resolve her employment status. The school district argued that Rommel failed to pursue an internal remedy to resolve the issue of her employment status. However, the court found that Rommel had actively attempted to have her employment status resolved by contacting various school district employees. Moreover, the court found, the school district did not identify any other internal remedy that was available to Rommel at the time that it alleges that she learned of her discharge. “[I]n any event,” the court noted, “exhaustion of internal administrative remedies is not a prerequisite for filing a FEHA claim.”

The court also rejected the school district’s argument that it was not alerted to the facts that formed the basis of Rommel’s disability discrimination claims under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The school district argued that while Rommel’s disability leave applications and workers’ compensation claim provided notice of her disability and her need for an accommodation, they did not alert the school district to Rommel’s claim that she suffered an adverse employment action due to her disability. Rommel alleged, however, that she advised the school district that her AWOL status was incorrect and that she should be reinstated. Because Rommel’s FEHA action was based on the same allegations, the court found that the school district was sufficiently alerted to her claim that an unjustified adverse action had been taken against her while she was on approved leave. The court further noted that “[i]t was reasonable to infer” that during the school district’s investigation of Rommel’s employment status, the school district had “gathered evidence pertaining to the merits of, and any defenses to,” Rommel’s disability discrimination, reasonable accommodation, and improper discharge claims.

The court concluded that the allegations Rommel’s pleading were sufficient to invoke the doctrine of equitable tolling and that her FEHA claims were not barred. Thus, the court reversed the trial court’s judgment.

Practical Impact

According to Leslie E. Wallis, a shareholder in the Los Angeles office of Ogletree Deakins, “This case illustrates that employers must make sure to keep the channels of communication open and share appropriate information between various departments (such as between human resources and payroll).  Employers must also make sure to investigate, timely and fully, employee concerns as well as internal inconsistencies (such as, in this case, the internal report that an employee was both on authorized and unauthorized leave) or risk tolling the statute of limitations. An employer cannot rely on its own delay to bar prosecution of a claim against it.”