Seyfarth Synopsis: In a refreshing display of judicial restraint, the California Court of Appeal has declined to extend California’s “wrongful termination” law to a failure to hire, because in the absence of a preexisting employment relationship an employer owes no duty in tort to a job applicant. Williams v. Sacramento River Cats Baseball Club, LLC (September 24, 2019).

Background

In 1980, the California Supreme Court held in Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co. that an employee could bring a tort action against an employer for wrongful discharge. Due to the nature of the tort, such a claim is subject to a three year statute of limitations.

In Tameny, the plaintiff was fired after he refused to participate in a price-fixing scheme. The Supreme Court concluded that his former employer had to abide by the fundamental public policy embodied in the penal statutes, and was liable to the plaintiff in tort—for “wrongful discharge”—if the motivation for his discharge contravened public policy.

Thereafter, in Stevenson v. Superior Court, the California Supreme Court explained what characteristics a public policy must have to support a Tameny claim: the policy must be (1) delineated in constitutional or statutory provisions, (2) for the benefit of the public and not just the individual, (3) well established at the time of discharge, and (4) substantial and fundamental. Elaborating further, in Miklosy v. Regents of the University of California, the Supreme Court clarified that the Tameny tort requires proof of an employment relationship.

Against this backdrop, Wilfert Williams filed a Tameny claim against the Sacramento River Cats Baseball Club, LLC (“the River Cats”), complaining that the River Cats had failed to hire him as an assistant visitor clubhouse manager. For over a year, the visitor clubhouse manager had retained Williams to cater meals for the team, and then recommended Williams to fill the assistant manager job. Yet, despite his qualifications, Williams, who is black, was passed over in favor of a white high school student.

Williams sued the River Cats in tort for failing to hire him because of his race, observing that racial discrimination is against public policy. The River Cats demurred, arguing that California common law does not recognize a claim for failure to hire in violation of public policy. The trial court agreed and dismissed the case. Williams appealed.

Court of Appeal decision

Discussing Tameny and its progeny, the Court of Appeal upheld the trial court’s determination because Williams was a job applicant, and thus was not an employee to whom the River Cats owed a duty. The Court of Appeal noted that Williams was not without recourse, however, in that he could proceed under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which provides a statutory cause of action for a discriminatory refusal to hire. A FEHA lawsuit would simply require that the plaintiff initially exhaust available administrative remedies by filing a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing and obtaining a right-to-sue letter, which is issued as a matter of course.

What Williams Means for Employers

While the California Supreme Court has not given its final stamp of approval to the Court of Appeal’s reasoning in River Cats, it seems likely that job applicants cannot bring Tameny actions against prospective employers. While job applicants can still seek recourse for employment discrimination under the FEHA, that statutory claim requires the plaintiff to first file an administrative complaint within the FEHA’s one-year limitations period.