Service Employees International Union Local 1021 et al v. County of San Joaquin

Filing 24

MEMORANDUM and ORDER signed by District Judge Morrison C. England, Jr. on 11/30/17 DENYING 11 , 15 Motions for Summary Judgment. (Kaminski, H)

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 UNITED STATES DISTRICT COURT 9 EASTERN DISTRICT OF CALIFORNIA 10 11 12 13 SERVICE EMPLOYEES INTERNATIONAL UNION, LOCAL 1021; BIANKA SAENZ; CARLA MALDONADO, Plaintiffs, 14 15 16 17 No. 2:15-cv-02202-MCE-KJN MEMORANDUM AND ORDER v. COUNTY OF SAN JOAQUIN, Defendant. 18 19 Through this action, Plaintiffs Service Employees International Union (“SEIU”) 20 Local 1021, Bianka Saenz, and Carla Maldonado (collectively, “Plaintiffs”) seek redress 21 from Defendant, and Plaintiffs’ former employer, San Joaquin County (“Defendant” or the 22 “County”) arising out of Saenz’s and Maldonado’s termination of employment. 23 Specifically, Plaintiffs’ operative First Amended Complaint (“FAC”) alleges that 24 Defendant failed to inform Plaintiffs of their rights to return to their permanent status 25 positions, failed to return Plaintiffs to their pre-promotion permanent status positions, and 26 failed to provide Plaintiffs with pre-deprivation, due process hearings, all in violation of 27 Plaintiffs’ due process rights as protected civil service employees. ECF No. 6. Plaintiffs 28 seek declaratory and injunctive relief enjoining Defendant from dismissing Plaintiffs from 1 1 employment without the ability to return to their pre-promotion positions and an award of 2 monetary damages to compensate for Plaintiffs’ lost wages and attorney’s fees. 3 Presently before the Court are the parties’ cross-motions for summary judgment. ECF 4 Nos. 11, 15. For the reasons that follow, both Motions are DENIED.1 5 6 BACKGROUND2 7 8 9 On September 26, 2011, Maldonado began employment with the County as a part-time Housekeeping Service Worker at the San Joaquin General Hospital. 10 Sometime in or around December 2014, Maldonado was promoted to a full-time 11 position. On July 24, 2015, however, Maldonado was released during the full-time 12 position’s probationary period, and her employment with Defendant was terminated on 13 the ground that she did not meet department requirements. 14 In the meantime, on October 7, 2013, Saenz began her employment with 15 Defendant as a part-time Shelter Counselor. On October 6, 2014, she was also 16 promoted to a full-time position, but, as with Maldonado, Defendant terminated Saenz 17 (this time just over two weeks later) for failure to satisfactorily complete her probationary 18 period with respect to her full-time position.3 19 It is undisputed that both Maldonado and Saenz were initially employed by 20 Defendant as part-time employees. It is also undisputed that both Plaintiffs were later 21 promoted to full-time positions. The parties agree that Plaintiffs failed to complete their 22 respective full-time probationary periods and were released from County employment. 23 Additionally, it is undisputed that neither Plaintiff was given a pre-deprivation due 24 25 26 27 1 Because oral argument would not have been of material assistance in rendering a decision, the Court ordered this matter submitted on the briefs. E.D. Cal. Local Rule 230(g). 2 The following recitation of background facts is taken, sometimes verbatim, from Plaintiffs’ FAC. ECF No. 6. 3 28 On February 2, 2015, in response to an unfair labor practice charge, Defendant informed SEIU that Saenz had been discharged for dishonesty. 2 1 process hearing, nor informed of her alleged right to return to her pre-promotion position. 2 And neither Plaintiff was returned to that pre-promotion, part-time position within the 3 County. 4 In their Motion for Summary Judgment, as well as in their Opposition to 5 Defendant’s Motion, Plaintiffs allege that at the one year mark of being employed by the 6 County, both Maldonado and Saenz obtained permanent status in their pre-promotion, 7 part-time positions. Pls.’ Mot., ECF No. 12 at 6; Pls.’ Opp’n., ECF No. 16. As such, 8 Plaintiffs allege that they had a property interest in their continued employment, entitling 9 them to due process protections including the right to be returned to their pre-promotion 10 positions, the right to be informed of these return rights, and the right to a pre- 11 deprivation, due process hearing. Pls.’ Mot., ECF No. 12; Pls.’ Opp’n., ECF No. 16. In 12 support of their claims, Plaintiffs assert that their due process rights are established in 13 the plain language of the Civil Service Rules (“CSR”), which Plaintiffs contend governs 14 part-time employees and explicitly provides that part-time employees may be permanent 15 employees. More specifically, according to Plaintiffs, CSR’s Rule 1 defines part-time 16 employment, and unambiguously states that “a permanent position may be part time or 17 full time.” Pls.’ Mot., ECF No. 12. Finally, Plaintiffs claim that even if they were not 18 considered permanent employees, Defendant’s CSR lends part-time employees a 19 reasonable expectation of return rights, and that as an employee within Defendant’s civil 20 service, they can only be terminated for cause. Pls.’ Opp’n., ECF No. 16 at 2-7. 21 Conversely, Defendant, in its Motion for Summary Judgment and in its Opposition 22 to Plaintiffs’ Motion, asserts that Plaintiffs at the time of termination were at-will 23 employees that could be and were terminated from their employment with the County 24 without cause during their respective probationary periods. ECF No. 15-1; ECF No. 18. 25 According to Defendant, Plaintiffs, as part-time employees, were never permanent 26 employees with the County. Def.’s Mot., ECF No. 15-1 at 4. Moreover, as part-time 27 employees, neither Plaintiff falls under the purview of the CSR because they were simply 28 not civil service employees. Id. at 3. Defendant further contends that part-time 3 1 employees have never been considered a part of the County civil service. Id. Finally, 2 Defendant asserts that because part-time employees have separate and less stringent 3 hiring practices and are not selected from a ranked list after having completed the 4 relevant civil service examination, they consequently do not enjoy the greater protections 5 of civil service employees. Id. at 4. 6 Defendant thus concludes that due to Plaintiffs’ statuses as part-time rather than 7 permanent employees, whose positions fall outside the civil service protections, they do 8 not have an expectation of continued employment and therefore have no property 9 interest in their employment or any associated due process rights. It follows, according 10 to Defendant, that when Plaintiffs’ employment was terminated they were not entitled to 11 the rights to return to their pre-promotion position, to be informed of these return rights, 12 or to the benefit of pre-deprivation, due process hearings. 13 14 STANDARD 15 16 The Federal Rules of Civil Procedure provide for summary judgment when “the 17 movant shows that there is no genuine dispute as to any material fact and the movant is 18 entitled to judgment as a matter of law.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); see also Celotex Corp. v. 19 Catrett, 477 U.S. 317, 322 (1986). One of the principal purposes of Rule 56 is to 20 dispose of factually unsupported claims or defenses. Celotex, 477 U.S. at 325. 21 Rule 56 also allows a court to grant summary judgment on part of a claim or 22 defense, known as partial summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a) (“A party may 23 move for summary judgment, identifying each claim or defense—or the part of each 24 claim or defense—on which summary judgment is sought.”); see also Allstate Ins. Co. v. 25 Madan, 889 F. Supp. 374, 378-79 (C.D. Cal. 1995). The standard that applies to a 26 motion for partial summary judgment is the same as that which applies to a motion for 27 summary judgment. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(a); State of Cal. ex rel. Cal. Dep’t of Toxic 28 /// 4 1 Substances Control v. Campbell, 138 F.3d 772, 780 (9th Cir. 1998) (applying summary 2 judgment standard to motion for summary adjudication). 3 In a summary judgment motion, the moving party always bears the initial 4 responsibility of informing the court of the basis for the motion and identifying the 5 portions in the record “which it believes demonstrate the absence of a genuine issue of 6 material fact.” Celotex, 477 U.S. at 323. If the moving party meets its initial 7 responsibility, the burden then shifts to the opposing party to establish that a genuine 8 issue as to any material fact actually does exist. Matsushita Elec. Indus. Co. v. Zenith 9 Radio Corp., 475 U.S. 574, 586-87 (1986); First Nat’l Bank v. Cities Serv. Co., 391 U.S. 10 11 253, 288-89 (1968). In attempting to establish the existence or non-existence of a genuine factual 12 dispute, the party must support its assertion by “citing to particular parts of materials in 13 the record, including depositions, documents, electronically stored information, 14 affidavits[,] or declarations . . . or other materials; or showing that the materials cited do 15 not establish the absence or presence of a genuine dispute, or that an adverse party 16 cannot produce admissible evidence to support the fact.” Fed. R. Civ. P. 56(c)(1). The 17 opposing party must demonstrate that the fact in contention is material, i.e., a fact that 18 might affect the outcome of the suit under the governing law. Anderson v. Liberty Lobby, 19 Inc., 477 U.S. 242, 248, 251-52 (1986); Owens v. Local No. 169, Assoc. of W. Pulp and 20 Paper Workers, 971 F.2d 347, 355 (9th Cir. 1987). The opposing party must also 21 demonstrate that the dispute about a material fact “is ‘genuine,’ that is, if the evidence is 22 such that a reasonable jury could return a verdict for the nonmoving party.” Anderson, 23 477 U.S. at 248. In other words, the judge needs to answer the preliminary question 24 before the evidence is left to the jury of “not whether there is literally no evidence, but 25 whether there is any upon which a jury could properly proceed to find a verdict for the 26 party producing it, upon whom the onus of proof is imposed.” Anderson, 477 U.S. at 251 27 (quoting Improvement Co. v. Munson, 81 U.S. 442, 448 (1871)) (emphasis in original). 28 As the Supreme Court explained, “[w]hen the moving party has carried its burden under 5 1 Rule [56(a)], its opponent must do more than simply show that there is some 2 metaphysical doubt as to the material facts.” Matsushita, 475 U.S. at 586. Therefore, 3 “[w]here the record taken as a whole could not lead a rational trier of fact to find for the 4 nonmoving party, there is no ‘genuine issue for trial.’” Id. 87. 5 In resolving a summary judgment motion, the evidence of the opposing party is to 6 be believed, and all reasonable inferences that may be drawn from the facts placed 7 before the court must be drawn in favor of the opposing party. Anderson, 477 U.S. at 8 255. Nevertheless, inferences are not drawn out of the air, and it is the opposing party’s 9 obligation to produce a factual predicate from which the inference may be drawn. 10 Richards v. Nielsen Freight Lines, 602 F. Supp. 1224, 1244-45 (E.D. Cal. 1985), aff’d, 11 810 F.2d 898 (9th Cir. 1987). 12 13 ANALYSIS 14 15 Plaintiffs’ claims arise under the due process clause of the Fourteenth 16 Amendment. “The Supreme Court has recognized that a government employee is 17 entitled to due process when the employee has a property interest in a benefit, such as 18 continued employment.” Beckwith v. County of Clark, 827 F.2d 595, 596 (9th Cir. 1987) 19 (citing Board of Regents v. Roth, 408 U.S. 564 (1972)). Further, “an interest in a benefit 20 is a property interest for due process purposes if there is a mutually explicit 21 understanding or a state law or other rule that supports the claim of entitlement to the 22 benefit.” Beckwith, 827 F.2d at 597; see also Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 601 23 (1972); Dorr v. County of Butte, 795 F.2d 875 (9th Cir. 1986). 24 In contrast, in California, there is a presumption that all employees are at-will. 25 Labor Code § 2922. “A mere expectation that employment will continue does not create 26 a property interest. If under state law, employment is at-will, then the claimant has no 27 property interest in the job.” Hart v. Tuolumne Fire Dist., 2011 WL 3847088 (E.D. Cal. 28 Aug. 30, 2011) at *15 (quoting Portman v. County of Santa Clara, 995 F.2d at 904). 6 1 However, “a public employee in California who can establish the existence of rules and 2 understandings, promulgated and fostered by state officials, that justify his legitimate 3 claim to continued employment absent sufficient cause, has a property interest in such 4 continued employment within the purview of the due process clause.” Hart v. Tuolumne 5 Fire Dist., 2011 WL 3847088 at *16 (quoting Skelly v. State Personnel Board, 15 Cal. 3d 6 194, 207 (1975) (held that a state civil servant who achieved “permanent employee” 7 status had property interest rights protected by due process). In the instant case, such 8 “rules and understandings” creating a legitimate claim to the continued employment of 9 County employees are found within the CSR. 10 The parties agree that both Saenz and Maldonado were promoted from part-time 11 to full-time positions. Pls.’ SSUF, ECF No. 17, at ¶¶ 43-44, 52-53. They also agree that 12 both Plaintiffs were terminated during their respective full-time probationary periods. Id. 13 at ¶¶ 46, 55. The crux of the present motions is therefore whether Plaintiffs had 14 expectations of continued employment in their former part-time positions that entitled 15 them to the right to return to their pre-promotion positions, the right to be informed of 16 their return rights, and the right to pre-deprivation, due process hearings. 17 Defendant contends that the plain language of the CSR, as well as fifteen years 18 of history between the parties, support its position that Plaintiffs—as part-time 19 employees—were not entitled to the due process rights they are attempting to assert.4 20 Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 20 at 5. Defendant points to the CSR’s definitions of “Classified 21 Service,” “Position,” and “Regular Position,” to assert that, when taken together, these 22 definitions reveal that there are only two types of positions in the County: (1) permanent 23 regular positions that fall within the civil service and (2) other positions that fall outside 24 the civil service. Id. at 5-6. Defendant asserts that without specific guidance from the 25 CSR establishing that part-time employees are permanent regular employees, the 26 27 28 4 Defendant offers evidence of historical contract negotiations with the SEIU, and a San Joaquin Human Resources memorandum to assist in determining the content of the contractual agreement between Defendant and the SEIU. Def’s. Mot., ECF No. 12. “Under California law, a party may present extrinsic evidence to show that a facially unambiguous contract is susceptible of another interpretation.” Maffei v. N. Ins. Co. of New York, 12 F.3d 892, 898 (9th Cir. 1993). 7 1 default presumption in California is that employees are at-will and able to be terminated 2 without cause. Def.’s Mot., ECF No. 15-1 at 14. It follows, according to Defendant, that 3 Plaintiffs, in their pre-promotion positions as part-time employees, therefore did not have 4 an expectation of continued employment. Id. Essentially, Plaintiffs’ employment was 5 “at-will” because they were part-time employees who, although employed by Defendant 6 for over a year, never completed a probationary period. Def.’s Reply, ECF No. 20 at 8. 7 By Defendant’s logic, because Plaintiffs never met the more stringent criterion that is 8 associated with permanent employee status, they are not entitled to the employment 9 benefits of permanent employees (e.g., return rights to pre-promotion positions and pre- 10 deprivation due process hearings). Def.’s Mot., ECF No. 15-1 at 15. Defendant thus 11 contends that Plaintiffs were at all times “at-will” employees, and at the point when 12 Plaintiffs failed to meet the requirements of their promotional probation, their 13 employment was legitimately terminated without implication of any due process rights 14 regularly associated with permanent employees. Id. at 16. 15 Plaintiffs on the other hand assert they had a reasonable expectation of continued 16 employment in their pre-promotion positions. Under the plain language of the CSR, they 17 argue, all employees of the County are civil servants, regardless of whether those 18 employees completed a probationary period. Pls.’ Opp’n., ECF No. 16 at 4. Plaintiffs 19 point to multiple sections within the CSR that they assert expressly contemplate part- 20 time employees as falling within the protections of the civil service system. One example 21 proffered by Plaintiffs is Rule 8, Section 6, which states in relevant part, “[a]ll 22 appointments to positions in the Classified Service whether permanent, provisional, 23 temporary, emergency, or part-time shall be promptly reported by the Appointing 24 Authority…” Pls.’ Reply, ECF No. 19 at 2 (emphasis added). 25 Further, Plaintiffs allege that not only were they part of the civil service system as 26 part-time employees, but they were also permanent employees after having completed a 27 one-year probationary period in their part-time, pre-promotion positions. Pls.’ Mot., ECF 28 No. 12 at 5-8. More specifically, the definition of “permanent” in Rule 1 of the CSR 8 1 expressly states that “[a] permanent position may be part time or full time.” ECF 2 No. 13-3 at 10. Thus, Plaintiffs assert that as part-time, permanent employees they had 3 an expectation of continued employment and should have been returned to their pre- 4 promotion positions, and only terminated for cause from those part-time, permanent 5 positions. Pls.’ Mot., ECF No. 12. 6 Additionally, Plaintiffs allege that even if they are not considered permanent 7 employees under the CSR, they maintain a property interest in the expectation to return 8 to their prior positions because the CSR does not require an employee to have 9 permanent status in their prior position. Pls.’ Reply, ECF No. 19 at 11. In furtherance of 10 this argument, Plaintiffs point to Rule 10 section 5, which provides that “[a] promoted 11 employee who fails to complete the probationary period in the promotion class shall 12 have the right to be returned to the pre-promotion classification and department…” ECF 13 No. 13-3 at 48. Plaintiffs allege this rule’s silence on permanency when discussing an 14 employee failing the probationary period and returning to the pre-promotion position is 15 an indicator that return rights are for all employees, not just those in permanent 16 positions. 17 Finally, Plaintiffs allege that just as all members of the civil service have a 18 property interest in their continued employment, they also can only be discharged for 19 cause. Pls.’ Reply, ECF No. 19 at 10. Plaintiffs point to CSR Rule 18 section 1, which 20 states the rules of dismissal are applicable to all civil service employees and not just 21 those who fall unambiguously within the permanent status. Pls.’ Opp’n., ECF No. 16 at 22 9-10. Therefore, Plaintiffs allege that as part-time civil service employees, they have 23 due process rights resulting from an expectation of continued employment (regardless of 24 permanent employee status), and thus they should only have been terminated for cause. 25 In considering the respective positions of the parties, the Court concludes that this 26 is, at bottom, an issue of interpretation of the CSR. The Court is required to construe the 27 language of a contract in light of the contract as a whole, and “[o]n a motion for summary 28 judgment, a court may properly interpret a contract as a matter of law only if the meaning 9 1 of the contract is unambiguous.” Best Buy Stores, L.P. v. Manteca Lifestyle Center, 2 LLC, 859 F. Supp. 2d 1138, 1147 (E.D. Cal. 2012), citing Miller v. Glenn Miller Prods., 3 Inc., 454 F.3d 975, 990 (9th Cir.2006) (citation omitted). Here, however, the parties 4 dispute the plain meaning of the CSR, and that very dispute reflects the ambiguities 5 therein. Indeed, when taken as a whole, the provisions of the CSR are far from 6 unambiguous. 7 When a contract provision is ambiguous “ordinarily summary judgment is 8 improper because differing views of the intent of parties will raise genuine issues of 9 material fact.” Maffei v. N. Ins. Co. of N.Y., 12 F.3d 892, 898 (9th Cir.1993) (quoting 10 United States v. Sacramento Mun. Util. Dist., 652 F.2d 1341, 1344 (9th Cir.1981)). 11 Consequently, the Court finds there are genuine issues of material fact that foreclose the 12 possibility of granting either motion for summary judgment. These issues—which arise 13 from the ambiguities present in the CSR as raised by both parties—include, but are not 14 limited to: (1) whether Plaintiffs completed a one-year probationary period in their pre- 15 promotion positions; (2) whether Plaintiffs are entitled to the protections of San Joaquin 16 County’s civil service system regardless of whether they completed their probationary 17 periods; (3) whether Plaintiffs as part-time employees were able to attain permanent 18 status, and whether they did in fact attain that status; and (4) whether regardless of their 19 employment status, Plaintiffs had an expectation of continued employment under the 20 CSR. Accordingly, both Motions for Summary Judgment are DENIED. 21 /// 22 /// 23 /// 24 /// 25 /// 26 /// 27 /// 28 /// 10 1 CONCLUSION 2 3 4 For the reasons set forth above, both Plaintiffs’ and Defendant’s Motions for Summary Judgment (ECF Nos. 11, 15) are DENIED. 5 IT IS SO ORDERED. 6 Dated: November 30, 2017 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 11

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