California Supreme Court Cases to watch unfold in 2021 

There are three major cases in California to look at this year that may transform the current state of the workplace in relation to environment, contracts, and retaliation. 

Bailey vs San Francisco District Attorneys Office  

The Supreme Court will review this 2015 case filed by former investigative assistant, Twanda Bailey, against the San Francisco District Attorney’s office. Bailey alleges that she was subject to a hostile work environment after she filed a complaint against a co-worker who used a racial slur.  

Bailey filed a claim with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing after the director of human resources denied her claim against the co-worker.  The District Court of Appeal rejected Bailey’s claim deeming the incident isolated and insufficient given that the racial epithet was made by a co-worker and not a supervisor.  

Bailey has since asked the California Supreme Court to review the case, arguing the Court’s previous review of similar cases, including Brooks v. The City of San Mateo (2000) and Reid v. Google Inc. (2010). 

In Reid, the California Supreme Court held that “a slur, in and of itself, did not prove actionable discrimination” but clarified that, in conjunction with other evidence of pretext, a “stray remark” could be part of broader evidence sufficient to defeat summary judgment. 

In Brooks, the court set a new standard, finding that a single incident of harassing conduct suffices to create a triable issue of fact of in a hostile work environment case if the harassing conduct unreasonably interfered with the plaintiff’s work performance or created an intimidating, hostile, or offensive working environment.

Conyer v. Medical Hula Services, LLC  

This case under review by the Supreme Court highlights the complexity of arbitration agreements and what factors may deem them to be unconscionable.  

In this case, an employee signed a revised employment handbook that contained an arbitration clause.  The employee subsequently filed claims for alleged violations of the Fair Employment and Housing Act against the employer.  The employer attempted to compel arbitration of the claims. The employee argued that he was unaware that his signature of the employee handbook created a binding contract.   

The Court of Appeals found that an employee who signs a document acknowledging receipt of the company’s employees’ handbook and agrees to be bound by the terms has assented to an arbitration provision without requiring the employer to draw attention to it.

The Supreme Court is set to decide whether the employee’s signature is sufficient as a binding agreement and whether an arbitration provision should remain intact.  

Lawson v. PPG Architectual Finishes, Inc.  

The final case to look out for involves bad paint jobs and the practice of McDonnell Douglas Burden Shifting, a legal framework analysis used in deciding whether an employee’s discrimination claim against an employer will hold in court.

In Lawson, after an employee reported his employer for purposely mis-tinting paint to move sales, the employee filed a complaint against the employer for giving him a bad performance review under false pretenses.  

When taken to trial, the court used the McDonnell Douglas analysis ultimately siding with the employer, but when brought to the Ninth Circuit, the plaintiff argued that the court instead should have been using the Labor Code standard in which the court uses the defendant’s clear and sufficient evidence in its decision making.  

As the court has no clear guidance or reference from previous cases, Lawson is now under review in the Supreme Court to address the question of the appropriate standard for judges in determining these types of cases.