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WCAB’s Denial Of Discrimination Claim Does Not Stop FEHA Discrimination Claim
In 2013, Gurdip Kaur, an employee at Foster Poultry Farms LLC, slipped at work while wearing company-issued rubber boots and broke her wrist. After surgery, Kaur returned to work and, despite her work restrictions, Foster Farms forced her to perform her normal job duties. Kaur struggled to perform her normal job duties, but Foster Poultry denied her requests for accommodation. She was terminated in late 2013 but was then reinstated after contesting her termination. In 2016, Foster Poultry restructured and gave her a new job she could not perform one-handed, so she was terminated again.
In 2016, Kaur filed a petition against Foster Poultry with the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) alleging discrimination for filing her claim, in violation of Labor Code Section 132(a). Her claim was heard in an administrative hearing and was eventually denied.
In 2017, before her workers’ compensation claim was decided, Kaur also sued Foster Poultry under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). Kaur’s five FEHA claims were centered around discrimination due to race/nationality and disability.
When Kaur’s worker’s compensation claim was denied, Foster Poultry asserted an affirmative defense to Kaur’s lawsuit, arguing that all of Kaur’s disability-related claims were barred by the legal doctrines of res judicata and collateral estoppel. Simply put, these doctrines generally preclude a person from re-litigating issues that were argued and decided in prior proceedings, even if the second lawsuit raises different causes of action. Together, these doctrines can be referred to as “issue preclusion.”
The trial court granted summary judgment for Foster Poultry due to its affirmative defense. Kaur appealed.
The primary issue on appeal was whether the trial court properly decided that the WCAB’s denial of Kaurs’ 132(a) claims precluded her FEHA claims. The California Court of Appeal held that Kaur’s FEHA claims were not precluded.
For an issue to be precluded, the issue must be identical to that decided in a former proceeding. The issue must also have been actually litigated and necessarily decided in the former proceeding. In addition, the decision in the former proceeding must be final and on the merits. Finally, the party against whom preclusion is sought must be the same as, or in privity with, the party to the former proceeding.
The Court of Appeal focused on the first prong of the above test; whether the issues were identical. In the WCAB claim, the issue was whether Kaur experienced discrimination on account of the industrial nature of her injury. On the other hand, Kaur’s FEHA claims were broader and centered on whether she experienced discrimination on account of her disability, and whether she was unlawfully discharged because of her disability. Moreover, Kaur’s other FEHA claims, such as her allegations that she was not provided reasonable accommodation and was not engaged in a good faith interactive process, involved entirely different issues from the WCAB claim. The Court further found that, in deciding the WCAB issue, the administrative hearing judge ignored certain FEHA requirements because the issue was so distinct from FEHA and involved different considerations.
The Court of Appeal held that the denial of the WCAB claim did not preclude Kaur’s FEHA claims, and she could move forward with her lawsuit.
A concurring opinion cautioned that this decision should be interpreted narrowly and that the decision did not mean that factual findings by an administrative hearing judge on a WCAB claim can never result in issue preclusion on a FEHA claim. Rather, one must look carefully at the underlying issues and findings of fact. A claim decided in a WCAB setting may indeed prevent a FEHA claim if the issues and inquiries are similar enough.
Kaur v. Foster Poultry Farms LLC, 2022 WL 4243090.
The underlying FEHA claims have not yet been decided in this case. However, agencies should always be cognizant of the many FEHA laws and regulations that require reasonable accommodation of both industrial and non-industrial injuries.