Statute’s Religion Exemption Blocks California Teacher’s FEHA Claim

A teacher who was the victim of an ongoing pattern of harassment at the hands of students at the school where she taught received a mixed result in her legal action against the school and the Catholic archdiocese that ran it. The US District Court for the Northern District of California allowed the teacher to pursue her federal Title VII claim, but it sided with the archdiocese on the Fair Employment and Housing Act claim, concluding that the state statute’s exemption for religious associations applied.

The case involved the victimization of Kimberly Bohnert, a science teacher at Junipero Serra High School in San Mateo. The problems started with “offensive and sexually graphic” graffiti in a bathroom that depicted Bohnert. Other incidents included sexually inappropriate comments by students on social media involving the teacher and eventually the discovery of cell phone photos and videos that focused up Bohnert’s skirt and were taken without her knowledge or consent.

Believing the school did far too little to end the inappropriate and harassing conduct, the teacher sued the school and the Archdiocese of San Francisco. The teacher alleged that the harassment violated both Title VII and the FEHA. The court allowed the teacher’s Title VII claim to go forward, ruling that the students engaged in an ongoing pattern of activity that was both objectively and subjectively hostile, and that the school authorities did not do enough to prevent the activity from occurring and, once it happened, did not do enough to stop it.

The court, on the other hand, agreed with the archdiocese that the teacher could not pursue her FEHA claim. Unlike Title VII, the FEHA contains a provision in it that exempts religious employers. Cal. Gov. Code Section 12926(d) sets out the standards for who qualifies as an employer under the FEHA. This categorization includes “any person regularly employing five or more persons, or any person acting as an agent of an employer, directly or indirectly, the state or any political or civil subdivision of the state, and cities.” However, the statute expressly excludes from this group all religious associations.

In Bohnert’s case, had she proven that the school was a separate and distinct entity from the archdiocese, her FEHA claim might have survived, since non-profit public benefit corporations can qualify as employers under the FEHA. However, the evidence introduced in the teacher’s case did not establish such a separation. The collective bargaining agreement the teachers’ union signed was with the archdiocese, not the school. The school’s financial statements were prepared on behalf of all archdiocesan schools, not Serra separately. Lacking proof that the school was a distinct entity from the archdiocese, the religion exception blocked the teacher’s FEHA claim.

The court’s ruling against the teacher mirrored a previous California Court of Appeal ruling from 2011. In that case, a teacher at a religious preschool sued for FEHA violations after the school fired her for living with her boyfriend and having a child outside of marriage. Just as in Bohnert’s case, the court decided that the evidence showed that the school lacked any independent legal status separate and apart from the church, so the law exempted it from qualifying as an employer.

With the FEHA, as with any discrimination law, it is not always enough simply to have been the victim of workplace discrimination or harassment. It is also about meeting all the legal qualifications and avoiding the “deal breaker” exemptions in order to pursue your case. For reliable advice and skillful representation in your FEHA case, contact the Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment law attorneys can help you as you pursue those who illegally discriminated against you. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

Harassment Not Sufficiently Severe, Pervasive to Allow California Spa Worker to Win Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Sept. 15, 2015

University Allowed to Require Professor to Submit to Psychological Exam, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Nov. 14, 2014

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