In a recent unpublished case, the California Court of Appeal ruled a public civil service commission decision on a worker’s employment claims precluded him from relitigating his claims in a civil action. According to the state appellate court, the suit brought by a discharged worker who filed claims against his public employer was barred. Glover v. City of Santa Barbara, No. B257114 (May 21, 2015).

The plaintiff, a former city employee, filed a complaint against the City of Santa Barbara in the Superior Court of California, alleging violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), among other claims. Before filing a civil complaint with the Superior Court, the plaintiff had initiated a review of his discharge with the city’s Civil Service Commission. The Commission upheld the termination of his employment. The plaintiff submitted a written request seeking an appeal of the Commission’s decision.  In its final decision the Commission upheld the plaintiff’s discharge.

California’s Code of Civil Procedure section 1094.6 sets forth the procedure for judicial review of a local agency decision (other than that of a school district) by filing a petition for writ of mandate. Accordingly, under section 1094.6, a petition seeking judicial review of the Civil Service Commission’s final decision upholding the plaintiff’s discharge would have to have been filed no later than the 90th day following the date the decision became final.

Rather than filing a petition for a writ of administrative mandate seeking judicial review of the Commission’s decision, the plaintiff abandoned his internal grievance and filed a complaint with the California Superior Court under the FEHA. The City of Santa Barbara demurred to the complaint arguing that the doctrine of collateral estoppel barred the former employee’s claims. The Court of Appeal agreed, holding that when a public service employee choses to pursue an internal grievance, he or she will be bound by the agency’s decision unless the employee moves to set aside the decision by filing a petition for writ of mandate.

An employee is not required to exhaust a public employer’s internal grievance procedure before filing a complaint with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH). A civil service employee may choose to pursue remedies under FEHA with the DFEH or through an internal grievance procedure. However, once an employee chooses to file an internal grievance, he or she may not abandon the internal remedies to file a complaint alleging the same grievance with the DFEH.

Key Takeaways

The Glover decision reminds public employees that although they have options when pursuing employment claims, they cannot waste public entity resources and forum shop for a favorable decision.

If an employee chooses to pursue the internal grievance procedure and obtains an adverse ruling, he or she must exhaust his or her judicial remedies to have the agency’s decision set aside or it will be binding on all subsequent actions. If this were not the case, a plaintiff could forum shop, forcing the public entity to defend itself in multiple venues.

Public entity attorneys should always review the procedural history of employment law claims carefully to see if there is a basis to dismiss the case at the early stages of litigation based on the plaintiff’s failure to exhaust both administrative and judicial remedies.

According to Guillermo A. Escobedo, a shareholder in the San Diego office of Ogletree Deakins, “This is also a reminder—and a warning—that parties need to put their best case forward even at the early stages of the internal grievance process. Judicial review of an administrative decision will be based on the evidence submitted during the administrative hearing. If a party fails to submit favorable evidence or to make a clean record at the hearing, the party may be precluded from introducing new evidence in connection with the judicial review.”