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James Rodriguez v. California Department of Justice

January 31, 2012

JAMES RODRIGUEZ, PLAINTIFF AND RESPONDENT,
v.
CALIFORNIA DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE, DEFENDANT AND APPELLANT.



(Super. Ct. No. 34200800007351CUOEGDS)

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

Rodriguez v. Cal. Dept. of Justice

CA3

NOT TO BE PUBLISHED

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 This opinion has not been certified for publication or ordered published for purposes of rule 8.1115.

In this case under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.) (the FEHA), plaintiff James Rodriguez recovered a judgment against his employer, the Department of Justice (the department), for $560,709 in damages and was awarded $645,534 in attorney fees. On appeal, the department asserts numerous errors, including denial of its motion to bifurcate the trial and application of a multiplier in the award of attorney fees. We find the department's arguments without merit, with one exception: the trial court erred in providing for postjudgment interest on the award of damages at the rate of 10 percent per annum, rather than the 7 percent rate that applies to judgments against state agencies like the department. Accordingly, we will modify the judgment to correct that interest rate and will affirm the judgment as modified.

FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

The Underlying Facts

Only a relatively brief summary of the rather extensive underlying facts is necessary.

Rodriguez began working for the department in 1988. In 1991, he became a special agent.

In May 2006, while assigned to the Sacramento Regional Office for the Bureau of Narcotic Enforcement, Rodriguez contacted the department's equal employment rights and resolution unit (the unit) to complain that he was being treated differently -- including being passed over for promotion -- because he is Hispanic and because of his support for two other agents with regard to their EEOC (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission) complaints. When his complaint to the unit produced no results, in September 2006 Rodriguez filed his own EEOC complaint, alleging discrimination that included a disciplinary memorandum and denial of an assignment as an acting supervisor in December 2005, removal from an assignment as an acting supervisor after serving only one day in April 2006, and involuntary reassignments in February and April 2006.

In November 2006, Rodriguez and representatives of the department attended a mediation of Rodriguez's EEOC complaint. At that mediation, the parties entered into a handwritten memorandum of understanding. Among other things, that memorandum provided that Rodriguez would be provided the opportunity to take supervision training at the department's expense and that at such time as the position of acting task force commander in South Lake Tahoe became available, Rodriguez would be given that assignment for 30 to 120 days. If that position was not available, upon agreement of the parties, Rodriguez was to be given as assignment as an acting task force commander elsewhere. The memorandum further provided that the parties would enter into a formal settlement agreement "with the standard release language," which apparently was to come from the EEOC's "standard negotiated settlement agreement."

In mid- to late-November 2006, the department placed someone other than Rodriguez in the acting supervisor position in South Lake Tahoe.

In February 2007, the parties signed a formal "Settlement Agreement and Release of Claims" based on the November 2006 memorandum of understanding. Under the terms of the agreement, Rodriguez "waive[d] any rights to assert any claims based upon events through the Settlement Date . . . against [the department]," which was November 3, 2006.

In August 2007, Rodriguez filed a second EEOC complaint alleging further discrimination between December 2006 and July 2007, including multiple denials of promotion. Among other things, he complained that the department had "retaliated against [him] by being in breach of the . . . mediation agreement."

The Pleadings

In April 2008, Rodriguez filed a complaint for damages against the department under FEHA for retaliation, discrimination and harassment based on race, and failure to take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment. (Gov. Code, § 12940, subd. (k).) The complaint included allegations of his treatment by the department both before and after the settlement agreement in November 2006.

In January 2009, Rodriguez filed a motion for leave to amend his complaint to allege a cause of action for breach of contract. In support of the motion, Rodriguez's counsel explained that earlier that month, the department's counsel "articulated the [department's] position that any alleged adverse acts taken against Rodriguez prior to the date of the EEOC settlement would be inadmissible since [Rodriguez] ha[d] not alleged breach of contract in his original complaint." Accordingly, Rodriguez sought leave to allege a breach of contract action for the purpose of seeking rescission of the settlement agreement. In the proposed amended complaint, Rodriguez expressly did not seek damages or attorney fees for breach of the settlement agreement, just rescission of the agreement.

The department did not oppose Rodriguez's motion for leave to amend but indicated it intended to file a demurrer to the new cause of action. In April 2009, the trial court sustained the demurrer with leave to amend. In May 2009, Rodriguez filed his second amended complaint, and in July 2009 the trial court overruled the department's demurrer to the cause of action for rescission.

The Department's Motion To Bifurcate

Meanwhile, also in May 2009, the department filed a motion to bifurcate the trial of Rodriguez's "equitable claim for rescission and his legal claims based upon the Fair Employment and Housing Act." The department relied on Code of Civil Procedure sections 592 and 1048, subdivision (b) to support his motion.*fn1

Rodriguez opposed the bifurcation motion on the ground (among others) that bifurcation would "require two trials involving the same set of facts."

On June 4, the trial court denied the motion to bifurcate as premature, without prejudice to the department moving to bifurcate in front of the trial judge once the case was assigned for trial.

On January 4, 2010, the case was assigned for trial to Judge David De Alba. That same day, the department once again filed a motion to bifurcate "so that [Rodriguez]'s purported rescission cause of action is heard and decided by the Court prior to any jury trial of [his] remaining [FEHA] claims." Once again, the department relied on section 592 and subdivision (b) of section 1048. Once again, Rodriguez opposed the motion.

Following extended oral argument, the trial court denied the motion to bifurcate, concluding that "the question of whether there was a breach of the contract is one that should be addressed [by] the jury if for no other reason because of the duplicity of testimony that would be presented to this Court" if the rescission claim were bifurcated from the FEHA claims. The court expressed "no doubt that it would take multiple days, if not a week, to resolve the issue of whether there was a breach or not, and then the subsequent issue of whether rescission is proper or not." The court also noted that Rodriguez might "be entitled to offer as relevant evidence matters that occurred before November 3rd of 2006 either on a theory of a continuing violation of a work place practice and/or in support of the fourth cause of action of the . . . [d]department['s] failure to correct any pre-existing discriminatory and/or retaliatory practices, and possibly under the mandate of Evidence Code section 1101(b) as prior acts that may have some relevance or circumstantial proof of intent to discriminate and/or retaliate." Ultimately, the trial court concluded there were "multiple reasons why a bifurcated proceeding would not be economical and would not prevent any acts that occurred before November 3rd, 2006 from being produced or introduced before the jury." The court expressed its belief that "whether there was, in fact, a breach, whether rescission is proper in equity and how damages if any should be apportioned could properly be the subject of a special verdict form," and the court stated it was "prepared to take under submission the equitable question of whether rescission is a proper remedy pending the jury's resolution of the factual issue of whether there's a breach in the first instance."

Thereafter, the court addressed the department's motion in limine to exclude evidence or argument regarding any act or omission predating the settlement agreement and the settlement agreement itself. The court denied that motion for the same reasons it denied the motion to bifurcate, noting, "The subject of a settlement agreement and its breach is a material fact for the jury to resolve."

Trial And Verdict

The case was tried to a jury over 14 days in January and February 2010. The trial court instructed the jury on retaliation; race-based harassment; failure to prevent race-based harassment, discrimination, and/or retaliation; and breach of contract.

The jury was presented with an eight-page special verdict form. In answering the questions on that form, the jury determined that the department retaliated against Rodriguez for his complaints of discrimination or retaliation or for his assistance to others who filed EEOC complaints, that the department failed to take reasonable steps to prevent discrimination, retaliation, or harassment of Rodriguez, and that these actions or omissions were substantial factors in causing harm to Rodriguez. The jury further determined, however, that the department did not discriminate against or harass Rodriguez based on his race.

The only question on the verdict form related to breach of contract was whether the department breached a material term of the mediation settlement agreement, which the jury answered "yes." As a result of the answer, the jury was directed to determine the amount of Rodriguez's damages without any date restriction. The jury fixed Rodriguez's damages at $248,709 for economic loss and $312,000 for non-economic loss, for a total of $560,709.

Had the jury determined that the department did not breach a material term of the mediation settlement agreement, the jury would have been directed to determine only the amount of Rodriguez's damages "from the [department's] conduct that occurred after November 3, 2006."

On the same day the jury returned its verdict, the trial court prepared and entered a "Judgment on Verdict" in the amount the jury awarded, "with interest thereon at the rate of ten percent per annum."*fn2 Two weeks later, when the parties returned to court to address the rescission issue, the department's attorney stated that he wanted to be heard on the "issue [of] the amount of interest assigned to the judgment," because the department believed it should be 7 percent. The court determined that issue would have to be raised by "a different motion" and was "not . . . today before the Court."

The Rescission Hearing

The court then proceeded with the hearing on the issue of rescission. The department argued that the court needed to rule on the department's equitable defenses to Rodriguez's rescission claim and make a determination as to whether Rodriguez could indeed rescind the settlement agreement. The department further argued that the judgment that had been entered on the jury's verdict was "entered in error before we had a final ...


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