Wills v. Superior Court of Orange Cnty., No. G043054.

CourtCalifornia Court of Appeals
Writing for the CourtARONSON
Citation125 Cal.Rptr.3d 1,195 Cal.App.4th 143,24 A.D. Cases 807,11 Cal. Daily Op. Serv. 4443,2011 Daily Journal D.A.R. 5338,2011 Daily Journal D.A.R. 6900
PartiesLinda WILLS, Plaintiff and Appellant, v. The SUPERIOR COURT of Orange County, Defendant and Respondent.
Docket NumberNo. G043054.
Decision Date20 July 2011

195 Cal.App.4th 143
125 Cal.Rptr.3d 1
24 A.D. Cases 807
11 Cal.
Daily Op. Serv. 4443
2011 Daily Journal D.A.R. 5338
2011 Daily Journal D.A.R. 6900

Linda WILLS, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
The SUPERIOR COURT of Orange County, Defendant and Respondent.

No. G043054.

Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Division 3, California.

April 13, 2011.
As Modified on Denial of Rehearing May 12, 2011.

Review Denied July 20, 2011.



[125 Cal.Rptr.3d 5]Spillane Weingarten, Alex M. Weingarten, Los Angeles; and Joshua R. Furman for Plaintiff and Appellant.

Claudia Center for The Legal Aid Society—Employment Law Center as Amicus Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.


Paul, Plevin, Sullivan & Connaughton, San Diego, Fred M. Plevin and Michael J. Etchepare for Defendant and Respondent.

Jones Day, San Diego, George S. Howard, Jr., and Kristine S. Tremble for Employers Group, California Employment Law Council, and California State Association of Counties as Amici Curiae on behalf of Defendant and Respondent.

[195 Cal.App.4th 148]



[125 Cal.Rptr.3d 6]OPINION

ARONSON, J.

Plaintiff Linda Wills appeals from the judgment entered after the trial court granted a summary judgment motion by defendant Superior Court of the State of California, County of Orange (OC Court). Wills worked for the OC Court until it terminated her employment for violating its written policy against verbal threats, threatening conduct, and violence in the workplace. Wills sued the OC Court, alleging it terminated her for conduct related to her mental disability. Wills argued the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) prohibits an employer from terminating or disciplining an employee for workplace misconduct caused by a disability in the same manner as it prevents an employer from discriminating against an employee for having a disability.

The trial court granted the OC Court's summary judgment motion on the grounds that (1) Wills failed to exhaust her administrative remedies on the six FEHA causes of action relating to discrimination and harassment she alleged in her operative pleading and (2) Wills's misconduct provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory basis for terminating her employment. We agree Wills failed to exhaust her administrative remedies as to five of her six causes of action, and the remaining cause of action fails because Wills's misconduct provided a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for her termination. Specifically, Wills's disability discrimination claim fails because an employer may reasonably distinguish between disability caused misconduct and the disability itself when the misconduct includes threats or violence against coworkers. In these circumstances, terminating the employee based on the misconduct

[195 Cal.App.4th 149]

does not amount to discrimination prohibited by FEHA. Consequently, we affirm the trial court's judgment.

I
Facts and Procedural History

Wills's doctor diagnosed her with bipolar disorder in 1997. Bipolar disorder is a mental disability characterized by mood swings between depressive and manic episodes. Persons experiencing a manic episode may become irritable, verbally and physically aggressive, and loud. Inappropriate behavior also can occur, including blurting out socially inappropriate and even threatening comments. A manic episode also may produce difficulty in controlling impulses and temperament. Grandiose thinking and increased self-esteem often accompany these other symptoms. Persons suffering a manic episode commonly will not recall clearly what they did or thought during the episode.

Psychiatric care and medication aid in controlling bipolar disorders, but manic and depressive episodes may still occur. Persons experiencing a manic episode sometimes require new or adjusted medication and may require hospitalization to treat the chemical imbalances causing the episode or to separate them from any triggering stimulus in their environment. When the condition is properly managed, individuals can have extended periods without either a manic or depressive episode.

Wills began working for the OC Court in 1999 as a court processing specialist, and later became a court clerk. During Wills's employment, she took numerous medical leaves to treat her bipolar disorder, but neither she nor her doctor informed the OC Court why Wills needed the time off. Wills, however, did tell some of her supervisors she suffered from depression.

[125 Cal.Rptr.3d 7]In early July 2007, the OC Court assigned Wills to the Anaheim Police Department's lockup facility to help arraign criminal suspects by video. On July 3, Wills arrived for work and rang the buzzer for entry into the secured facility. She waited outside for several minutes before being admitted.

When she entered the lockup area, Wills angrily swore and yelled at Anaheim Police Department employees, accusing them of intentionally leaving her outside in the summer heat. Wills told Officer Todd Gardetto she added him and detention facility assistant Michelle Nellesen to her “Kill Bill” list for leaving her out in the heat. Gardetto and Nellesen both felt threatened by Wills's demeanor and statements. They understood the “Kill Bill” list comment to refer to a movie in which the main character made a list of people she intended to kill.

[195 Cal.App.4th 150]

Although Wills did not make the “Kill Bill” comment directly to Nellesen, Gardetto informed Nellesen about the comment shortly after Wills made it. Moreover, Wills angrily told Nellesen never to leave her outside again. In reporting the matter to her supervisor, Nellesen asked if she should seek a restraining order against Wills. Other employees who witnessed Wills's outburst also viewed it as threatening Gardetto and Nellesen.

Despite Wills's conduct, the Anaheim Police Department permitted her to complete her shift. But the department reported the incident to the OC Court, and demanded the OC Court never again assign Wills to its facility. The OC Court agreed to the department's demand.

At her deposition, Wills disputed the events and circumstances surrounding the “Kill Bill” comment. She denied threatening to put anyone on a “Kill Bill” list. According to Wills, she and Gardetto were joking during some downtime an hour or more after she entered the facility. Wills testified she asked Gardetto if he knew about the “Kill Bill” movie and what would happen if she put him and Nellesen on a “Kill Bill” list. Wills explained she asked the question as a joke and Gardetto laughed in response.

Wills was unaware of it at the time, but these events occurred during the early stages of a severe manic episode. A few days later, Wills's doctor placed her on medical leave to treat her manic episode.

While out on leave, Wills forwarded a cell phone ringtone to several people, including a coworker. The ringtone's video portion showed the character Buckwheat from The Little Rascals television show. Its audio portion repeatedly commanded the recipient to check his or her messages. The commands grew in anger and volume, culminating in a shrieking directive: “ ‘I'm going to blow this bitch up if you don't check your messages right now! ... Fuck you!’ ” The coworker who received the ringtone reported it to the OC Court, complaining the ringtone's tenor and content disturbed and frightened her. The coworker explained she felt the threats were directed to her because she had an uneasy relationship with Wills.

Also while out on leave, Wills sent numerous e-mail messages to friends and family members and to several coworkers at e-mail addresses the OC Court provided. The e-mails rambled wildly as Wills vented a wide array of thoughts and emotions. Wills expressed extreme anger at certain family members, disowning them and vowing never to see or speak with them again. She also expressed love and gratitude for other family members and friends who continued to support her. The desultory e-mails covered topics ranging from her conversations with God to trips she planned to take. In the e-mails, [125 Cal.Rptr.3d 8]Wills acknowledged their sometimes disturbing and threatening tone, but explained everything nonetheless needed to be said.

[195 Cal.App.4th 151]

One coworker reported the e-mails to the OC Court, complaining that Wills's angry and irrational tone, and Wills's references to violence, alarmed her. The coworker believed Wills directed some of the threats to her based on the following statements: (1) “I say that because I'm covering my ass, just in case one of you evil bitches feel like punishing me again by calling the police or showing them my numerous ‘so called hate’ emails” and (2) “BUT GOD TOLD ME, ‘DON'T WORRY LINDA, YOUR FAMILY AND SO CALLED FRIENDS WILL PAY FOR WHAT THEY PUT YOU THROUGH THIS WHOLE TAXING WEEK, AND GET THEM OUT OF YOUR MIND BECAUSE THEY ARE NOT WORTH YOU[R] PAIN AND SUFFERING ANYMORE.[’] DO ANYTHING YOUR PRECIOUS HEART DESIRES, BECAUSE I, GOD WILL NOW PROTECT YOU FROM EVIL AND THE DEMONS THAT CAME OUT IN YOUR FAMILY AND FRIENDS. THEY WILL PAY FOR WHAT THEY DID TO YOU.” The coworker thought the references to “ ‘evil bitches' ” and “ ‘so-called family and friends' ” referred to her. The coworker explained that several days before receiving the e-mails, Wills called her in a distraught state and talked about suicide. The coworker told Wills she was going to call 911 to get Wills help.

Several weeks later, Wills's manic episode ended and her doctor cleared her to return to work without restrictions. On the day of her scheduled return, however, the OC Court placed Wills on paid administrative leave to investigate the incident at the Anaheim Police Department and the complaints regarding the ringtone and e-mail messages. During this investigation, Wills's doctor submitted a letter to the OC Court explaining Wills suffered from bipolar disorder that caused her behavior in these incidents. Wills's doctor further explained Wills at no time posed a danger to anyone.

During its investigation, the OC Court interviewed Wills, who initially denied...

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