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Gateway Community Charters v. Spiess

California Court of Appeals, Third District, Sacramento

March 8, 2017

GATEWAY COMMUNITY CHARTERS, Plaintiff and Appellant,
v.
HEIDI SPIESS, Defendant and Respondent.

         APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Sacramento County, No. 34-2013-00149018-CU-PT-GDS Christopher E. Krueger, Judge. Affirmed.

          Young, Minney & Corr, Paul C. Minney, James E. Young, William J. Trinkle and Rachel B. Tillman for Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Procopio, Cory, Hargreaves & Savitch, Wendy L. Tucker; California Charter Schools Association, Ricardo J. Soto, Julie Ashby Umansky and Phillipa L. Altmann for California Charter Schools Association as Amici Curiae on behalf of Plaintiff and Appellant.

          Outten & Golden, Jennifer S. Schwartz and Menaka N. Fernando for Defendant and Respondent.

          BUTZ, J.

         In this appeal, we are called upon to answer a novel question of statutory interpretation: whether Gateway Community Charters (Gateway), a nonprofit public benefit corporation that operates charter schools, is an “other municipal corporation” for purposes of Labor Code section 220, subdivision (b) (hereafter section 220(b)), [1] thereby exempting it from assessment of waiting time penalties described in section 203. We conclude it is not; therefore, we affirm the judgment of the trial court.

         FACTUAL AND PROCEDURAL BACKGROUND

         Gateway is a California nonprofit public benefit corporation that operates public charter schools, including the school at which Heidi Spiess worked as an at-will employee. Gateway was the statutory “exclusive public school employer” of all the employees at the charter school, including Spiess. Following her termination, Spiess filed a claim with the labor commissioner alleging Gateway failed to pay timely her wages due and owing as required by section 201. In its decision awarding Spiess $640 in wages, $128 in liquidated damages, $105.20 in interest, and $8, 538 as a penalty pursuant to section 203, the labor commissioner expressly concluded Gateway did not qualify as an “ ‘other municipal corporation' ” under section 220(b).[2]

         Gateway appealed that decision to the trial court pursuant to section 98.2, claiming it was exempt from section 203 penalties as an “other municipal corporation” pursuant to section 220(b). Following a trial de novo, the trial court too entered judgment finding that Gateway is not an “other municipal corporation” for purposes of section 220(b) and was not exempt from paying waiting time penalties pursuant to section 203. It ordered Gateway to pay Spiess $640 in wages, $128 in liquidated damages, $105.20 in interest, and $8, 538 in waiting time penalties, plus costs, interest, and attorney fees.

         DISCUSSION

         Gateway contends it qualifies as an “other municipal corporation” for purposes of section 220(b), thereby exempting it from the assessment of waiting time penalties as described in section 203. Section 220(b) provides that the waiting time penalty codified in section 203, subdivision (a) does not apply “to the payment of wages of employees directly employed by any county, incorporated city, or town or other municipal corporation.” (§ 220(b).) Contrary to Gateway's contention, we conclude Gateway is not an “other municipal corporation” for purposes of the statutory exemption from waiting time penalties codified in section 220(b).

         As we have frequently explained, “ ‘[o]ur fundamental task in construing'... any legislative enactment[] ‘is to ascertain the intent of the lawmakers so as to effectuate the purpose of the statute.' [Citation.] We begin as always with the statute's actual words, the ‘most reliable indicator' of legislative intent, ‘assigning them their usual and ordinary meanings, and construing them in context. If the words themselves are not ambiguous, we presume the Legislature meant what it said, and the statute's plain meaning governs. On the other hand, if the language allows more than one reasonable construction, we may look to such aids as the legislative history of the measure and maxims of statutory construction. In cases of uncertain meaning, we may also consider the consequences of a particular interpretation, including its impact on public policy.' ” (Even Zohar Construction & Remodeling, Inc. v. Bellaire Townhouses, LLC (2015) 61 Cal.4th 830, 837-838.)

         The term “other” is inherently ambiguous. (Zumbrun Law Firm v. California Legislature (2008) 165 Cal.App.4th 1603, 1619.) Thus, to assist us in the interpretation of the phrase in question here-“other municipal corporation”-we turn to the related maxims of construction of noscitur a sociis (“literally, ‘it is known from its associates' ”) and ejusdem generis (“literally, ‘of the same kind' ”). (California Farm Bureau Federation v. California Wildlife Conservation Bd. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 173, 189.) “Noscitur a sociis... means that a word may be defined by its accompanying words and phrases, since ‘ordinarily the coupling of words denotes an intention that they should be understood in the same general sense.' [Citation.] Ejusdem generis... means that where general words follow specific words, or specific words follow general words in a statutory enumeration, the general words are construed to embrace only things similar in nature to those enumerated by the specific words.” (Ibid.)

         Here, the specifically listed words that precede “other municipal corporation” are “any county, incorporated city, or town.” (§ 220(b).) As “other” is an “inherently relational” term, its use suggests that the previously referenced entities in the sequence share the same characteristic or characteristics as the entity mentioned immediately thereafter, that is those of a “municipal corporation.” (See People v. Hubbard (2016) 63 Cal.4th 378, 387.) We must then ascertain what key characteristics are common to a ...


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