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Homer Ratcliff v. Pancho Redfern et al

December 29, 2010


Solano County Super. Ct. No. FCSO29613

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

Ratcliff v. Redfern CA1/2


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 This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.


Homer Ratcliff, chief executive officer (CEO) and sole owner of Car Credit Network (CCN), brought this action, as an individual, for slander per se and negligent and intentional infliction of emotional distress against Thornton Redfern (sued as Pancho Redfern), Warren Richardson, and White Auto Sales, Inc. (sued as White Motor Corp.), doing business as Fairfield Toyota (hereafter Fairfield Toyota). He appeals a judgment for defendants after the court granted them summary judgment based on the "common-interest privilege" (Civ. Code, § 47, subd. (c) (hereafter § 47(c))).*fn1 We affirm.


At all pertinent times (all unspecified dates are in 2007), Fairfield Toyota was an automobile dealership in Fairfield, California. Robert Armstrong, general manager for the parent corporation, Thomason Auto Group, Inc. (Thomason Auto), was in charge of all sales and service departments, and worked as general sales manager on the Fairfield Toyota premises. His responsibilities included ensuring that company policies and procedures were followed.

Kathleen Maschal, another Thomason Auto employee working at Fairfield Toyota, was corporate director of human resources. Her responsibilities included safety, hiring screening, employee relations and counseling, disciplinary actions, and sexual harassment and discrimination training. On the latter front, Fairfield Toyota had a "zero tolerance policy," meaning that no acts of harassment or discrimination were tolerated. Armstrong relied on her for counsel on such matters, and all managers in the company were required to report incidents of discrimination in any form, or hostile work environments.

Maschal's immediate supervisor was defendant Thornton Redfern, president of Thomason Auto, and defendant Warren Richardson was general sales manager of Fairfield Toyota, in charge of the sales department, including training, loan approvals, and customer negotiations. Redfern and Richardson each also worked at the dealership.

On April 1, plaintiff Ratcliff executed for CCN a special finance agreement (the agreement) with Fairfield Toyota. He personally negotiated the agreement; Armstrong was the other signatory. The agreement was that CCN, as an independent contractor with sole responsibility for paying its employees' wages, was to help credit-impaired buyers obtain financing for the purchase of vehicles from Fairfield Toyota. It was agreed that CCN would have an office on the dealership premises, have access to the sales building there, and have contact with the dealership sales employees and customers. Ratcliff also signed a lease agreement to that end. Ratcliff was president, CEO and sole owner/shareholder of CCN, and CCN employees initially were himself, his assistant, and another manager from a previous location.

In preparation for the new relationship, Ratcliff was required by Armstrong to complete a one-to two-hour online course on harassment. He did so and received copies, in booklet form, of the Fairfield Toyota harassment policy. Ratcliff hired two finance assistants, Natasha Piper and Nydia Hernandez, for CCN. Their job was to assist him in his role as CCN finance director.

On April 12, each assistant turned in to Fairfield Toyota's human services department a written statement complaining of harassment by Ratcliff, adding that his harassment had occurred in front of customers. Piper related the compensation terms of her contract, and that she was hired on March 19, worked 12 to 15 hours every day until April 8 (Easter), was told on April 11 not to come back, and was not paid any salary or commissions. Evidently alluding to herself and Hernandez, she wrote: "Ratcliff would talk to us condescendingly in front of customers, tell me I was doing nothing for him and that he could replace me at any time. . . . He would make statements saying 'Why do you stick your butt out; I'll give you a chance to make the boss happy later.' 'No one fucks my assistant but me.' "

Hernandez related similar contract terms. She stated that she had been hired on March 29, worked 12 to 15 hours a day with no days off except Easter, and was paid only $500, less than what was due, even though she did most of the appointments, sales, and paper work. Also alluding apparently to her fellow assistant, she wrote: "[Ratcliff] constantly was putting us down and yelling at us telling us that we didn't do any work and that we were replaceable. He would tell us remarks of that sort in front of customers. He constantly cusses at us and basically tells us we don[']t do 'shit.' I just don't think that this is an environment anyone should be working in."

Maschal testified in deposition that written statements about harassment were an appropriate "format" for Fairfield Toyota employees to use. Piper and Hernandez were employees of CCN and should have complained to "their boss," Ratcliff. As far as she knew, they did not make formal complaints to him.

At some point, Piper also orally informed Richardson of the harassment, adding that Ratcliff referred to himself as the "HNIC."*fn2 Richardson recalled this conversation being perhaps a month before the April meetings that form the basis for Ratcliff's defamation claims. Piper said in deposition that she did not recall when but recalled telling ...

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