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Cerrillo v. West Park Elementary School District

December 17, 2009

YOLANDA CERRILLO, PLAINTIFF,
v.
WEST PARK ELEMENTARY SCHOOL DISTRICT, STEVEN IRBY, RALPH VIGIL, AND DOES 1-10, INCLUSIVE, DEFENDANTS.



The opinion of the court was delivered by: Anthony W. Ishii Chief United States District Judge

ORDER ON DEFENDANTS' MOTION FOR SUMMARY JUDGMENT AND REMANDING CASE TO THE FRESNO COUNTY SUPERIOR COURT (Doc. No. 31)

This case was removed from the Fresno County Superior Court on the basis of federal question jurisdiction. The case arises from the termination of Plaintiff Yolanda Cerrillo's ("Cerrillo") employment with the West Park Elementary School District ("the District"). Cerrillo has brought claims of wrongful discharge, violations of the California Labor and Education Codes, and 42 U.S.C. § 1983. Defendants move for summary judgment. For the reasons that follow, the motion will be granted as to Cerrillo's federal claim and the case will be remanded.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND*fn1

Cerrillo was hired by the District as the assistant to West Park Elementary School principal Steven Irby ("Irby") on June 17, 2008. DUMF 1. As a new employee with the District, Cerrillo was a probationary employee. See DUMF 2. Cerrillo testified that she knew she would be on probation for a period of time when she was hired and was told that the period would be six months. DUMF 3. Pursuant to the District's policy for non-classified employees, probationary employees may be released without cause during their probation. DUMF No. 4.

When Cerrillo began this job with the District, she had over 28 years of experience as an administrative assistant. See PUMF 1. In her previous position at a busy court reporting company, Cerrillo managed multiple phone lines, customers, and crises, and had many of the same responsibilities as her position at West Park. PUMF 2.

With Irby's permission, Cerrillo reorganized certain aspects of the office; according to Irby, Cerrillo reorganized where various forms were kept. See PUMF 4;*fn2 Irby Deposition at 75. Irby repeatedly told her that he appreciated the great work she did. PUMF 5; see also PUMF 3. However, within a few months after Cerrillo began working for the District, several District staff formed the opinion that Cerrillo did not have adequate multi-tasking skills that the District required to work in the busy school office. See DUMF 5; PRDUMF 5.*fn3 Specifically, within a few months after Cerrillo began working for the District, District staff observed that Cerrillo failed to answer the phones properly, failed to transfer calls properly, failed to take messages as instructed, was resistant to training offered by co-workers familiar with her job duties, and was weak in her knowledge and use of the Excel computer program. DUMF 6.*fn4 District staff also received several complaints about Cerrillo's poor handling of telephone calls to the elementary school. Id.

Cerrillo worked from June 18, 2007, to October 9, 2007, before appearing for jury service and being selected as a juror in a case entitled Stacy Johnson-Klein v. Fresno State University ("the Klein Case") on October 10, 2007.*fn5 See DUMF 7. Cerrillo informed Irby that she had been called for jury duty approximately one week before she was to report for jury service, and that, in response, Irby asked her to let him know more as the date of her service approached. DUMF 11. She let Irby know more in a subsequent conversation, and in response he said "okay" and that he would have one of Cerrillo's co-workers come in early. Id.

On October 10, 2007, Cerrillo began jury service, which required her to be absent from work four days a week (Monday through Thursday, but she would work on Fridays) until and including December 6, 2007. See DUMF Nos. 10, 14; PUMF Nos. 6, 9. Also on October 10, Cerrillo informed Irby that she had been selected as a juror in the Klein Case, that the trial would take approximately four to six weeks, and that she would be on the jury four days out of the week. DUMF 13; PUMF 7. When Cerrillo informed Irby that she had been selected for the jury in October 2007, Irby did not express any objection to her jury service. DUMF 15. Cerrillo informed Irby that she was required to sign a form if she would be paid during the time that she was on jury duty, and Irby responded that she would be paid while on jury duty. See DUMF 12.

Around Thanksgiving 2007, Cerrillo told Irby that the Klein Case was extending into December 2007; in response, Irby said "okay." See DUMF 16; see also PUMF 8. District Superintendent Ralph Vigil ("Vigil") instructed Cerrillo not to divulge the details of the Klein Case, and except for a conversation Cerrillo says she had with District employee Yolanda Padilla ("Padilla"), at no time during the eight weeks that Cerrillo was on jury duty did she discuss her jury service with Vigil. See DUMF 17. The District paid Cerrillo for the eight weeks she missed work for jury service. See DUMF 18.

Prior to Cerrillo missing work for jury service, Irby and Vigil had a discussion about their concerns about Cerrillo's inadequate job performance in August or September 2007. DUMF No. 8.*fn6 The gist of the conversation was that Cerrillo might be terminated before becoming a permanent employee. Id. At management meetings (attended by inter alia Irby, Vigil, and Charter School Administrator Elizabeth Hammond) the attendees discussed releasing Cerrillo from her position at the District prior to the expiration of her six month probationary period because of the noted deficiencies in her performance. DUMF No. 9.*fn7 Such meetings occurred within a few months after Cerrillo began her employment with the District, and prior to Cerrillo being off work for jury duty. Id.

While on the jury, Cerrillo faced trouble at work due to jury service. PUMF 10. Specifically, Padilla, who is in charge of payroll, told Cerrillo that she was missing too much time for jury service. PUMF 11. Cerrillo had been asking Padilla if she could have a necessary training rescheduled to accommodate Cerrillo's jury service, and Padilla showed frustration and anger about the request. PUMF 14. Padilla told Cerrillo that she (Padilla) was going to have to give a lot of Cerrillo's responsibilities to another employee. PUMF 12. Because of Padilla's statements, Cerrillo felt like she had to fight for her job. PUMF 13. The exchange between Cerrillo and Padilla happened in front of Vigil, and he said nothing about the impropriety of Padilla's comments to Cerrillo. PUMF Nos. 15, 16.

As a probationary employee, Cerrillo was still learning the tasks of her position. PUMF 18. Irby stated that the reason there is a six month probation period is because that is how long it takes to give an employee a chance to perform. PUMF 20. Cerrillo did not get the full six months to learn and improve but rather spent two months of her probation on a jury, working very hard to keep up on the days she was at work. PUMF 21. Cerrillo also had the difficult task of working only one day a week for eight weeks. PUMF 17. Only being in the office on Fridays meant that Cerrillo had to learn how to do her job while catching up on everything that happened the previous week. PUMF 19.

Part of Cerrillo's duties included the prompt answering of phones and transferring of calls properly. PUMF 22. No one at West Park or the District ever told Cerrillo that she was not answering or transferring calls properly.*fn8 PUMF 23. No one at West Park or the District made any written documentation regarding Cerrillo improperly handling her phone duties prior to the end of her jury service. PUMF 24. Cerrillo's duties also included taking messages for West Park and District employees. PUMF 26. At West Park, Cerrillo used a system for tracking messages that she had used during her 28 years of experience as an administrative assistant. PUMF 27. Cerrillo kept a ledger for herself and then transferred the information to messages to give to the intended recipient. PUMF 28. The message tracking system used by Cerrillo was the same system that Cerrillo had used in her previous employment. PUMF 29. Cerrillo showed her message tracking system to Irby and he approved. PUMF 30. There is no written record of any complaints about the method Cerrillo used to take messages and no one at West Park or the District ever told Cerrillo there was a problem with her system. PUMF 31. Cerrillo declares that she capably handled the duties of her job. PUMF 25.

The Klein jury reached its verdict on December 6, 2009, and Cerrillo returned to work on December 7, 2007. See DUMF 19; PUMF Nos. 46, 47. When she returned to work on December 7, 2007, Cerrillo told Irby that she had been the Jury Foreperson and that the media might be calling her at school. See DUMF 20; PUMF Nos. 61-63. At no time did Cerrillo inform Irby or Vigil what verdict the jury reached in the Klein Case. See DUMF 24.

After Cerrillo told Irby about her role on the Klein jury, Cerrillo declares that both Irby and Vigil "engaged in a pattern of hostility towards her." PUMF 64; Cerrillo Decl. at ¶ 45. Prior to telling Irby about her role on the Klein Case jury, Cerrillo declared that she had frequent interactions with both Irby and Vigil and they were always friendly to her. See PUMF Nos. 3, 65. Cerrillo testified that when she returned to work following jury service, she thought that Irby and Vigil were hostile and cold toward her, but that Irby never said anything hostile toward her. See DUMF 25; PUMF 66. Cerrillo also thought that Vigil was ignoring her, did not say "hello," and was looking at her with "evil eyes," but she admitted that was just a feeling she had. See DUMF 26;*fn9 PUMF 67. Cerrillo declares that the tone of her regular meetings with Irby changed drastically. See PUMF 68. Whereas before Cerrillo told Irby she had been the jury foreperson in the Klein Case, the meetings with Irby had been friendly and joking, now Irby was quiet and unfriendly in the meetings. PUMF 69. Cerrillo declares that this behavior was in "stark contrast" to Irby and Vigil's behavior prior to Cerrillo making it known that she was the foreperson of the Klein Case jury. See PUMF 70.

After work on December 11, 2007, Cerrillo appeared in two television news interviews discussing the Klein Case. Cerrillo watched her interview on one of the channels on the 6:00 p.m. news. PUMF 71. In those interviews, Cerrillo stated that she thought the verdict was the correct one and that the amount was appropriate. PUMF 72. The West Park Elementary School District School Board held a meeting on the evening of December 11, 2007. PUMF 73.

Irby made the decision to terminate Cerrillo, which Vigil authorized. PUMF 76. On December 12, 2007, while Cerrillo was still on probation, the District released her from her employment with the approval of the District's Board of Trustees. DUMF No. 27; PUMF 74. That day, Cerrillo was informed that she was being released from her employment with the District at a meeting with Irby and Casandra Simpson ("Simpson"), who is the District's head of Human Resources. See DUMF No. 28; PUMF 75. At no point during that meeting did Irby or Simpson mention Cerrillo's jury service. Id. Cerrillo was not given a reason for her release from her employment with the District and she has no knowledge as to why she was released from her employment. PUMF Nos. 29, 30. Cerrillo had been at work three days between her return to work and her termination. PUMF 77. Cerrillo declares that she had no notice that there were any deficiencies in her work performance prior to her termination. PUMF 44. Following her release from employment, Cerrillo was issued her final paycheck on the normal pay cycle (once a month) on December 31, 2007. DUMF 35.

Irby testified that he had recommended to Vigil that Cerrillo's employment be terminated before the end of her probation because Irby did not believe that she had the required skills for the position. See DUMF 32.*fn10 Irby declares that he did not take Cerrillo's jury service on the Klein Case into account, or consider the Klein Case in any way, in recommending that Cerrillo be released from her employment with the District. See DUMF 33.*fn11 The only statements that Cerrillo testified making to Irby regarding her jury service were that: (1) she was called to serve, (2) she needed to fill out a form stating whether she would be paid during the time that she was on jury service, (3) she was selected for the jury in the Klein Case, (4) the case would last four to six weeks, (5) she would be on jury service four days a week (Monday through Thursday) and would report to work on Fridays, (6) the trial had been extended into December 2007, and (7) the trial was over, she had been the foreperson, and the media might be calling the District. DUMF 21. Vigil and Irby declare that they took no interest in the Klein Case or the verdict therein, nor did they follow the case in the media. See DUMF 31.*fn12

The District does not have any policy of encouraging employees to seek exemption from jury service, and at no time did Vigil or Irby encourage Cerrillo to seek an exemption from serving on the Klein Case. DUMF 34. Cerrillo freely admits that neither Vigil nor Irby ever told her that they were unhappy that she was serving on the Klein Case, neither instructed her not to serve, and neither told her that she was taking too much time from work for jury service. See DUMF 22.*fn13 Cerrillo freely admits that no one at the District prevented her from doing jury service, that no one employed by the District or on the District's Board of Trustees instructed her not to serve as a juror or requested that she not serve as a juror, and that no one at the District denied her the right to serve on the jury. DUMF No. 23.*fn14

The District receives the Fresno Bee newspaper on a daily basis, and a copy of that paper would frequently be in the staff lunch room. See PUMF Nos. 50, 51. The staff lunch room is very small. PUMF 53. Both Vigil and Irby regularly eat lunch in the staff lunch room. PUMF 52. Both Irby and Vigil claim that they had no interest in a lawsuit that was regularly on the front page of a newspaper delivered to the room where they ate lunch. PUMF 54;*fn15 cf. DUMF 31. Vigil claimed that he was unaware of the size of the verdict. PUMF 55. However, on the day Cerrillo returned to work, the Fresno Bee headline covering the top of the front page of the paper announced the $19.1 million verdict in favor of plaintiff. PUMF 56. That headline was in large print, was above a picture of the plaintiff and her two attorneys, and took up over half of the front page. See PUMF Nos. 57, 58. On the day the ...


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