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Tessa Cavazos v. East Side Union High School District

December 21, 2010


(Santa Clara County Super.Ct.No. 1-07-CV085424)

The opinion of the court was delivered by: Duffy, J.

Cavazos v. East Side Union High School CA6


California Rules of Court, rule 8.1115(a), prohibits courts and parties from citing or relying on opinions not certified for publication or ordered published, except as specified by rule 8.1115(b). This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

Tessa Cavazos is a high school teacher and was the head coach of the boys' varsity basketball team at Independence High School in San Jose for the 2005-2006 school year. After being informed in April 2006 by interim principal Carol Blackerby that she would no longer hold this head coaching position, Cavazos brought suit against Blackerby and the East Side Union High School District, alleging, inter alia, claims of gender discrimination and sexual harassment.*fn1 Defendants successfully moved for summary adjudication of the gender discrimination claim, and a jury later found in favor of defendants on the harassment claim. Cavazos appealed from the judgment entered against her.

On appeal, Cavazos challenges the summary adjudication order in favor of the District, claiming that the evidence she presented in opposition to defendants' motions supported an inference of discriminatory animus on the part of defendants that precluded the summary disposition of the gender discrimination claim. She also claims that the jury committed misconduct in its application of the legal standard of causation that resulted in a defense verdict on the harassment claim. We conclude that there was no triable issue of material fact supporting the gender discrimination claim and that therefore summary adjudication was proper. We find further that Cavazos presented no admissible evidence in support of her claim of jury misconduct and reject that contention as well. We will therefore affirm the judgment.


Cavazos filed suit in May 2007, and filed the (operative) first amended complaint against the District and Blackerby on October 16, 2007. She alleged four causes of action, namely, violations of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.; FEHA); intentional interference with economic relationship against Blackerby only; defamation; and intentional infliction of emotional distress. In reality, the first cause of action for alleged FEHA violations, as the court later determined, consisted of two causes of action for gender discrimination and harassment.

In June 2008, defendants filed separate motions for summary adjudication of claims (the motions), attacking each cause of action of the first amended complaint. Defendants argued, inter alia, that (1) Cavazos could not establish one or more of the required elements of a discrimination or harassment cause of action; (2) because Blackerby was not an "employer," she could not be held liable for discrimination under FEHA; and (3) Cavazos could not establish that Blackerby committed any acts of harassment. Cavazos opposed the motions. After a hearing, the court, inter alia, granted defendants' motions for summary adjudication of the claim for gender discrimination under FEHA, and denied summary adjudication of the claim for harassment under FEHA.*fn2

The case proceeded to jury trial on the FEHA harassment and the intentional infliction of emotional distress claims. After a nine-day trial, a jury returned a verdict in September 2008 in favor of defendants on the workplace harassment and intentional infliction of emotional distress causes of action. Cavazos filed motions for judgment notwithstanding the verdict (jnov) and for new trial, which motions were opposed by defendants. The court denied Cavazos's motions. A judgment was entered in favor of defendants, and Cavazos filed a timely appeal.


I. Issues Presented

Cavazos presents the following issues to be resolved in this appeal:

1. Whether the court erred in granting summary adjudication of the claim against the District for discrimination under FEHA.

2. Whether Cavazos is entitled to a new trial or jnov with respect to the claim against the District for harassment under FEHA, because the jury allegedly acted improperly by answering the first six questions of the special verdict form in favor of Cavazos and then answering the seventh question (regarding whether the harassment or failure to take immediate corrective action was a substantial factor in causing Cavazos's harm) in favor of the District.*fn3

II. Summary Adjudication of the Discrimination Claim

A. Standard of Review

1. Summary judgment and summary adjudication

"The purpose of the law of summary judgment is to provide courts with a mechanism to cut through the parties' pleadings in order to determine whether, despite their allegations, trial is in fact necessary to resolve their dispute." (Aguilar v. Atlantic Richfield Co. (2001) 25 Cal.4th 826, 843 (Aguilar).) As such, the summary judgment statute, Code of Civil Procedure section 437c,*fn4 "provides a particularly suitable means to test the sufficiency of the plaintiff's prima facie case and/or of the defendant's [defense]." (Caldwell v. Paramount Unified School Dist. (1995) 41 Cal.App.4th 189, 203 (Caldwell).) A summary judgment motion must demonstrate that "material facts" are undisputed. (§ 437c, subd. (b)(1).) The pleadings determine the issues to be addressed by a summary judgment motion. (Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego (1980) 26 Cal.3d 848, 885, revd. on other grounds Metromedia, Inc. v. City of San Diego (1981) 453 U.S. 490.)

"A motion for summary adjudication shall be granted only if it completely disposes of a cause of action, an affirmative defense, a claim for damages, or an issue of duty." (§ 437c, subd. (f)(1).) Like summary judgment, the moving party's burden on summary adjudication is to establish evidentiary facts sufficient to prove or disprove the elements of a claim or defense. (§ 437c, subds. (c), (f).)

The moving party "bears the burden of persuasion that there is no triable issue of material fact and that he is entitled to judgment as a matter of law." (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 850, fn. omitted.) A defendant moving for summary judgment must " 'show[ ] that one or more elements of the cause of action . . . cannot be established' by the plaintiff." (Id. at p. 853, quoting § 437c, subd. (o)(2).) A defendant meets its burden by presenting affirmative evidence that negates an essential element of the plaintiff's claim. (Guz v. Bechtel National, Inc. (2000) 24 Cal.4th 317, 334 (Guz).) Alternatively, a defendant meets its burden by submitting evidence "that the plaintiff does not possess, and cannot reasonably obtain, needed evidence" supporting an essential element of its claim. (Aguilar, supra, 25 Cal.4th at p. 855.)

Since both summary judgment and summary adjudication motions involve pure questions of law, we review the granting of summary judgment or summary adjudication de novo to ascertain from the papers whether there is a triable issue of material fact. (Chavez v. Carpenter (2001) 91 Cal.App.4th 1433, 1438; Travelers Casualty & Surety Co. v. Superior Court (1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 1440, 1450.) In doing so, we "consider[ ] all of the evidence the parties offered in connection with the motion (except that which the court properly excluded) and the uncontradicted inferences the evidence reasonably supports. [Citation.]" (Merrill v. Navegar, Inc. (2001) 26 Cal.4th 465, 476.)

In our independent review of the granting of summary judgment, we conduct the same procedure employed by the trial court. We examine (1) the pleadings to determine the elements of the claim, (2) the motion to determine if it establishes facts justifying judgment in the moving party's favor, and (3) the opposition--assuming movant has met its initial burden--to "decide whether the opposing party has demonstrated the existence of a triable, material fact issue. [Citation.]" (Chavez v. Carpenter, supra, 91 Cal.App.4th at p. 1438; see also Burroughs v. Precision Airmotive Corp. (2000) 78 Cal.App.4th 681, 688.) We need not defer to the trial court and are not bound by the reasons in its summary judgment ruling; we review the ruling of the trial court, not its rationale. (Kids' Universe v. In2Labs (2002) 95 Cal.App.4th 870, 878.)

2. Employment discrimination claims

Under FEHA, it is unlawful "[f]or an employer, because of the . . . sex . . . of any person, . . . to bar or to discharge the person from employment . . . , or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment." (Gov. Code, § 12940, subd. (a).) California courts apply the so-called McDonnell Douglas*fn5 three-part test in resolving discrimination claims. The "test reflects the principle that direct evidence of intentional discrimination is rare, and that such claims must usually be proved circumstantially. Thus, by successive steps of increasingly narrow focus, the test allows discrimination to be inferred from facts that create a reasonable likelihood of bias and are not satisfactorily explained." (Guz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 354.)

The initial step is the plaintiff's initial burden--one which is " 'not onerous' " (Guz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 355)--of showing a prima facie case of discrimination. (Id. at p. 354.) Although the particular elements may vary, generally, "the plaintiff must provide evidence that (1) he [or she] was a member of a protected class, (2) he [or she] was qualified for the position he [or she] sought or was performing competently in the position he [or she] held, (3) he [or she] suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination, demotion, or denial of an available job, and (4) some other circumstance suggests discriminatory motive. [Citations.]" (Id. at p. 355, fn. omitted.) Once that prima facie showing is made by the employee, the burden then "shifts to the employer to rebut the presumption [of discrimination] by producing admissible evidence, sufficient to 'raise[] a genuine issue of fact' and to 'justify a judgment for the [employer],' that its action was taken for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason. [Citations.]" (Guz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at pp. 355-356.) "If the employer sustains this burden, the presumption of discrimination disappears. [Citations.] The plaintiff must then have the opportunity to attack the employer's proffered reasons as pretexts for discrimination, or to offer any other evidence of discriminatory motive. [Citations.] In an appropriate case, evidence of dishonest reasons, considered together with the elements of the prima facie case, may permit a finding of prohibited bias. [Citations.] The ultimate burden of persuasion on the issue of actual discrimination remains with the plaintiff. [Citations.]" (Id. at p. 356.)

In the context of an employer's motion for summary judgment or summary adjudication involving an employment discrimination claim, " 'the burden is reversed . . . .' [Citation.]" (Martin v. Lockheed Missiles & Space Co. (1994) 29 Cal.App.4th 1718, 1731 (Martin), quoting University of Southern California v. Superior Court (1990) 222 Cal.App.3d 1028, 1036.)*fn6 Where the employer "presents admissible evidence either that one or more of plaintiff's prima facie elements is lacking, or that the adverse employment action was based on legitimate, nondiscriminatory factors, the employer will be entitled to summary judgment unless the plaintiff produces admissible evidence which raises a triable issue of fact material to defendant's showing." (Caldwell, supra, 41 Cal.App.4th at p. 203.)

In evaluating whether the employer's reasons for the adverse action were nondiscriminatory, the court does not look at the wisdom of the employer or whether it was correct in its reasons for taking the action. (Guz, supra, 24 Cal.4th at p. 358; see also Horn v. Cushman & Wakefield Western, Inc. (1999) 72 Cal.App.4th 798, 807 (Horn) [employee's proof of discrimination must be more than a showing that "employer's decision was wrong, mistaken, or unwise"].) Rather, "[w]hile the objective soundness of an employer's proffered reasons supports their credibility . . . , the ultimate issue is simply whether the employer acted with a motive to discriminate illegally. Thus, 'legitimate' reasons [citation] in this context are reasons that are facially unrelated to prohibited bias, and which, if true, would thus preclude a finding of discrimination. [Citations.]" (Guz, at p. 358.) Furthermore, "an inference of intentional discrimination cannot be drawn solely from evidence, if any, that the company lied about its reasons. The pertinent statutes do not prohibit lying, they prohibit discrimination. [Citation.]" (Id. at pp. 360-361, italics added; see also Hersant v. Department of Social Services (1997) 57 Cal.App.4th 997, 1003 (Hersant) [ultimate issue is whether employer acted for discriminatory reason, "not whether the employer ...

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