Nurses’ Bias Lawsuit Against Medical Group Should Have Been Dismissed

Group was not named in administrative complaint

By Joanne Deschenaux May 12, 2020
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nurse with patient

A jury found that a hospital and medical group created a hostile work environment and then violated California anti-discrimination law when it discharged three female nurses based on their opposition to a supervisor's alleged harassment. The hospital and medical group appealed.

The appeals court concluded that because the nurses had not named the medical group in the administrative complaint they filed with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), their claims against the group should not have been allowed to go to trial.  

The three nurses worked in the behavioral health unit of a Long Beach hospital. The hospital's locked mental ward was run by workers employed by the medical group. The nurses claimed that the director of the unit, an openly gay man, discriminated in favor of male staff—particularly gay men—with respect to scheduling, assignments and promotions, regularly used sexually explicit language that favored homosexuality, and denigrated heterosexuality.

The nurses were fired following reports that they had unlawfully restrained a patient without a doctor's order and without documenting it in the file. They filed administrative complaints with the DFEH alleging gender and sexual-orientation discrimination and retaliation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The complaints named the hospital and the nurses' supervisor but did not mention the medical group, their supervisor's actual employer.

The DFEH closed the complaints and notified the nurses of their right to file a civil action within one year of the notice.

The nurses then filed a lawsuit in trial court, adding the medical group as a named defendant. After a trial, the jury found against the hospital and the medical group and awarded damages totaling $4.7 million.

Both the hospital and the medical group appealed, and the appellate court reversed the judgment against both defendants.   

Failure to Exhaust Administrative Remedies

The medical group argued that it could not be held liable for the nurses' FEHA claims because the nurses failed to exhaust their administrative remedies, in that they failed to mention the medical group in their administrative complaints. The appeals court agreed.

FEHA makes it an unlawful employment practice for an employer to harass or discriminate against an employee based on the employee's sexual orientation, the court first noted.

[SHRM members-only HR Q&A: What is FEHA and what does it cover?]

Any person claiming a FEHA violation must first file a complaint with DFEH, which may investigate. If DFEH fails to investigate or finds no violation, it grants the complainants a right-to-sue letter, which allows them to then file an action in court.

The complainant must follow all the steps of this administrative procedure before being allowed to proceed to court. This is called "exhaustion of administrative remedies."

The court noted that the nurses mentioned the medical group nowhere in their FEHA complaint "which constitutes a failure to exhaust their administrative remedies against [the group] and precludes their bringing a civil FEHA action against it."

The court rejected the nurses' claim that they could procced against the medical group even though the group was not named in their administrative complaint because the group had actual notice of the complaint. The court found no such exception under California law.

The court also rejected the nurses' claim that they could not have named the medical group in their administrative complaint because they did not know of the group's existence, believing that their supervisor was employed by the hospital. The nurses could have cleared up the misconception through reasonable efforts exercised in a timely fashion, the court said.

The appellate court also reversed the judgment against the hospital, finding that there was insufficient evidence to support the jury verdict against it.

Alexander v. Community Hospital of Long Beach, Calif. Ct. App., Nos. B279155, B280916 (March 10, 2020).

Professional Pointer: As a prerequisite for filing a FEHA civil action against a particular employer, the employee must have named that employer in the caption or body of the DFEH complaint. An employee's failure to name the proper employer may enable that employer to have the case dismissed before trial.

Joanne Deschenaux, J.D., is a freelance writer in Annapolis, Md. 

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