The California Court of Appeals recently held that an employee is not required to exhaust her administrative remedies by filing a complaint with the Labor Commissioner before commencing a civil action under California Labor Code § 6310, which protects whistleblowers, unlike some other employment related claims.
The decision stems from a case brought by actress Nicolette Sheridan, known for her role as Edie Britt on the television series "Desperate Housewives." The case began with a script dispute between Sheridan and the show's producer Marc Cherry, during which Sheridan alleged that Cherry slapped her. Sheridan complained to Touchstone about the alleged assault. Shortly thereafter Sheridan's character was killed off and her contract was not renewed. Sheridan brought a claim for wrongful termination; however on a motion for directed verdict the Court held that refusal to renew a contract did not qualify as wrongful termination. The court allowed Sheridan to amend her complaint alleging retaliation under Labor Code § 6310. Touchstone brought a demurrer to the amended complaint on the basis that Sheridan had not first filed a complaint with the Labor Commissioner.
Several statutes that provide causes of action for employment related actions, such as the Fair Employment and Housing Act ("FEHA"), require employees to first file an administrative complaint or "exhaust administrative remedies" before filing a complaint in civil court. Though under FEHA, exhausting administrative remedies means little more than filling out a form and obtaining a "right to sue" letter from the department, failure to do so is a fatal flaw in a Plaintiff's case and bars further action. Moreover, obtaining the right to sue letter, puts the employer on notice of the allegations.
Touchstone argued that the whistleblower statute under which Sheridan was bringing her retaliation claim required a claimant to exhaust their administrative remedies with the Labor Commissioner. The Court of Appeals disagreed and held that the language of the Labor Code as to whistleblower claims under Labor Code §6310 was permissive instead of mandatory, giving employees the option to file in civil court or with the Labor Commissioner. The ruling by the Court of Appeals does not decide whether Sheridan was actually retaliated against, only that she can pursue her claim. The matter may now be appealed by Touchstone to the California Supreme Court. While the housewives of Wisteria Lane have faded from prime time, Sheridan's lawsuit continues into another season in light of the Court of Appeals ruling. It is uncertain if it will be picked up by the California Supreme Court, or sent back to the Santa Clarita Superior Court for a series finale.