More MS news articles for Aug 2001

Justices widen bias suit grounds: State top court extends time frame on citing harassment incidents.

Published Aug. 24, 2001
By Cathleen Ferraro
Bee Staff Writer

In a case with major implications for discrimination lawsuits, the California Supreme Court on Thursday upheld a legal doctrine that allows employees under certain conditions to cite patterns of discrimination or harassment stretching back more than a year.

The ruling clarifies an area of law that has been nebulous over the past year, with some courts limiting employees to citing workplace misconduct going back only one year.

Thursday's decision stemmed from a 1994 lawsuit by Sacramento engineer Lachi Delisa Richards, who complained that her former employer, CH2M Hill Inc., failed to adequately accommodate her after she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis.

In 1997 a Sacramento jury awarded her $1.4 million in damages.

Mark Van Brussel, a lawyer in Sacramento for CH2M Hill, said that lawsuit placed his client in an impossible position.

"Many of the things (Richards) complained about were impossible to refute because of the time that had passed, disappearance of witnesses, no one available to recall incidents that are claimed to have occurred," he said.

In March 2000, the 3rd District Court of Appeal rejected the Sacramento jury finding. It said that Richards knew her rights were being violated and waited too long before bringing legal action.

"It was the first time any court in California made an employee's knowledge of being harmed a criteria for when the one-year statute of limitation for filing a lawsuit would begin," explained Richards' Sacramento attorney, Christopher H. Whelan.

Thursday's Supreme Court ruling redefined what is required to recover damages for actions going back more than a year and determined that an employee's knowledge of the harm is irrelevant in triggering the clock for filing a lawsuit.

The court found that if a company and an employee are working together toward resolving harassment or discrimination complaints, then the one-year clock should not start.

That new standard creates an environment more conducive to resolving complaints, one attorney said Thursday, because workers don't have to rush into filing a lawsuit out of fear that they might miss the opportunity if the one-year filing deadline passes.

"The beauty of this decision is that it doesn't punish people who are reasonable and cooperative and want to try to work it out," said Whelan.

Now the case goes back to the Sacramento trial court where the facts will be tested against the Supreme Court's new standard.

Ted Olsen, a lawyer for Denver-based CH2M Hill -- one of the nation's biggest engineering firms -- said he's confident the trial court will find that his client "was in compliance with the law."

Four of the five California Supreme Court justices who heard the case agreed that evidence supported the Sacramento jury's findings that CH2M Hill had engaged in harassment and neglect.

The high court also confirmed that evidence showed the company had violated Richards' right to reasonable accommodations under the state's Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Between 1984 and 1993 Richards -- a world-class sprinter who barely missed qualifying for the 1984 Olympic Trials -- worked for CH2M Hill as a civil engineer in both the Redding and Sacramento offices. The first four years of her employment experience were positive, she said, with the company praising her work and allowing her to work part time to meet her track training schedule.

But in 1988, at the age of 31, Richards was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis and had to use a wheelchair as the disease took its toll.

According to Whelan's opening brief, CH2M Hill delayed for almost a year Richards' transfer request to Sacramento from the Redding site -- a three-story building with no elevator and no access for wheelchairs.

Other problems the young engineer faced, according to the brief, included cramped hallways, blocked fire escapes, elevator doors that would slam shut on her and being assigned to an isolated room known at the company as the "black hole," which had no heating or air conditioning.

To overcome those and other similar barriers, Richards said she often proposed two or three remedies using her engineering expertise.

"(CH2M Hill management) would promise to work on it in their way and what typically happened was nothing happened," said Richards, who resigned in 1993.

The giant engineering firm did make some accommodations, such as allowing Richards to work from home, to adopt a part-time schedule and to transfer to the Sacramento site.

The high court opinion issued Thursday noted, however, that the Sacramento transfer took so long -- 11 months -- because a manager "believed Richards had lied on her employment application about her medical condition, despite the lack of evidence of such misrepresentation."

The Bee's Cathleen Ferraro can be reached at (916)321-1043 or

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