SIGNIFICANT DECISIONS

Supreme Court

UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT:
 

Hertz Corp. v. Friend (2010) 559 U.S. 77

In this case, the Court revisited, for the first time in decades, the definition of “principal place of business.” Hertz Corporation sought removal of this wage and hour case to the Federal District Court claiming diversity-of-citizenship jurisdiction. The Ninth Circuit ruled that Hertz Corporation does substantial business in California and, therefore, was a citizen of California (thereby defeating diversity). The U.S. Supreme Court however, held that “principal place of business” is best read as referring to the place where a corporation’s officers direct, control, and coordinate the corporation’s activities, unless the alleged “nerve center” is nothing more than a sham (i.e., a mail drop box, bare office with a computer, etc.).

 

CALIFORNIA SUPREME COURT:

 

B.B. v. County of Los Angeles (2020) 10 Cal.5th 1

In this wrongful death civil rights action, the Court of Appeal (relying upon dicta from a prior Supreme Court case) had apportioned the noneconomic damages award, permitting the five minor children of the black victim, Darren Burley, to recover only 40% of the $8 million judgment. It did so despite the jury’s finding that one of the officers had acted intentionally in causing Mr. Burley's death. In its landmark decision, the California Supreme Court held that the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was not entitled to apportionment of noneconomic damages for a deputy’s intentional use of excessive force. Justice Liu wrote in concurrence, stating that Mr. Burley’s “death at the hands of law enforcement is not a singular incident unmoored from our racial history.” He also noted that while the Court’s ruling allowed the victim’s family full economic recovery, that more needs to be done to redress state-sponsored violence against African Americans. Justice Liu further suggested that economic damages alone are not enough to deter police misconduct.

 

For their work on this case, Scott Tillett and Norman Pine were co-recipients of the Daily Journal's 2020 California Lawyer Attorneys of the Year (CLAY) Award.

Williams v. Chino Valley Indep. Fire Dist. (2015) 61 Cal.4th 97

The California Supreme Court held that a trial court may award attorneys’ fees and costs to prevailing FEHA parties, but that an employee may only be required to pay a prevailing defendant employer’s costs if the court finds the lawsuit was objectively groundless. In civil litigation, the default rule requires each party to bear its own attorneys’ fees but allows the prevailing party to recover its costs from the losing party. This once acted as a powerful deterrent to employees with legitimate FEHA claims who were required to weigh their right to seek justice against the possibility of being on the hook for substantial costs if they lost. As a result of this case, victims of harassment, discrimination, or retaliation in the workplace may seek justice without the fear of facing bankruptcy if they are not successful.

 

Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co. (2014) 59 Cal.4th 407

The California Supreme Court held that federal immigration law does not preclude California courts from enforcing state protections for unauthorized aliens who work here. For example, the Court’s ruling clarifies that state labor law protections extend to individuals who have obtained jobs by relying on false documents. This decision was particularly important to protect unauthorized alien workers who would otherwise be vulnerable to exploitation. The Court also reversed the Court of Appeals’ conclusion that an “after-acquired evidence defense” is a complete defense, holding that such a defense, if applicable, merely limits the remedies available and does not extinguish plaintiff’s case altogether.

 

Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203

In this landmark employment case, the California Supreme Court rejected the defense’s position that plaintiffs who brought FEHA discrimination cases had to prove that, “but for” the defendant’s discriminatory intent, plaintiff would not have suffered the adverse treatment (e.g. termination) at issue. In recognizing the so-called “mixed motive” defense, the Court also ruled that, contrary to defendant’s argument and the opinion of the Court of Appeal, proof of such a defense was not a complete defense, but rather merely a defense to certain forms of relief plaintiff might otherwise have received.

 

Roby v. McKesson Corp. (2009) 47 Cal.4th 686

The Court recognized the distinction between the California FEHA statute and its Federal equivalent, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In doing so, the Court removed any doubt that discrimination and harassment are separate and unlawful employment practices under the FEHA and that under each of these claims, an aggrieved employee may obtain full compensation for any resulting injury. The Court also recognized that often the evidence supporting sexual discrimination will also help support a claim for sexual harassment. Therefore, it is error for a court to allocate evidence to one claim and ignore the evidence when analyzing the other claim.

 

Rico v. Mitsubishi (2007) 42 Cal.4th 807

The Court resolved conflicts in the case law concerning the ethical obligations of an attorney who inadvertently receives privileged documents from the other side and also the issue of whether there is a “crime fraud” exception to the work-product doctrine.

 

Green v. State of California (2007) 42 Cal.4th 254

This case resolved two important questions concerning disability discrimination law: (1) what is the prima facie burden of the plaintiff in such cases; and (2) whether the employee has the burden of proving that he or she could perform the job in question with reasonable accommodation, or the employer has the burden of proving that, even with reasonable accommodation, the employee was unable to perform the job.

 

MW Erectors v. Neiderhauser Ornamental & Metal Works Co. (2005) 36 Cal.4th 412

The Court, in this case, resolved issues of California licensing law, illegal contracts, and judicial estoppel. The Court held that the statutory exception for substantial compliance with licensing requirements was not available to a subcontractor. However, the Court also held the subcontractor was not barred from recovering for work performed after compliance with licensing requirements solely because it was unlicensed when the contract was executed.

 

Johnson v. Ford Motor Co. (2005) 35 Cal.4th 1191 (Amicus Curiae)

This case re-defined the scope and breadth of punitive damages law in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Campbell (2003) 538 U.S. 408 [123 S. Ct. 1513].

 

Little v. Auto Stiegler, Inc. (2003) 29 Cal.4th 1064 (Amicus Curiae)

The Court helped define the reach of Armendariz v. Foundation Health Psychcare Services, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal. 4th 83, concerning compulsory arbitration clauses.

 

White v. Ultramar (1999) 21 Cal.4th 563 (Amicus Curiae)

This case resulted in a key decision defining the broad scope of “managing agent.”

 

Swenson v. County of Los Angeles (1999) 75 Cal.App.4th 889, review granted Jan. 13, 2000, S083916, and review dismissed Jan. 24, 2001, S083916

The issue of the definition of “mental disability” was fully briefed in the Supreme Court before review was dismissed based on the Legislature’s enactment of the Poppick Act, which confirmed our position on the issue.