California Appeals Court Reverses Lower Court Decision in Wrongful Termination Age Discrimination Case

In a recent case, the Second District Court of Appeals Division 8 in California issued an opinion in an appeal involving a termination dispute between an employer and an employee. The plaintiff is a former employee of the defendant, St. Cecilia Catholic School. The plaintiff contends that she was wrongfully terminated by St. Cecilia for age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. At trial, St. Cecilia filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court issued an order granting the motion.

Facts of the Case

St. Cecilia is a Catholic elementary school in Los Angeles offering a faith-based education for children from kindergarten to eighth grade. The plaintiff was employed by St. Cecilia for roughly 40 years from 1978 to 2018. She began working at the school as a part-time secretary and office administrator. The plaintiff’s job duties included answering phones, filing, photocopying, maintaining records, processing registrations, parent communications, and ensuring that the office ran smoothly. She maintained that role until her termination at the end of the 2017-2018 academic year. In 1999, the plaintiff began working as a part-time art teacher at St. Cecilia in addition to her office administrative duties. As an art teacher, she taught studio art and art history to students and occasionally served as a substitute teacher for other subjects from time to time. Throughout her time as an employee, the plaintiff was the school’s only art teacher.

In 2017, a new, younger employee, was hired to work in the school office to do administrative tasks. The plaintiff trained the new employee. In the summer of 2018, a new principal arrived at St. Cecilia. The principal subsequently decided to eliminate the fine arts teaching position, eliminating the plaintiff’s role. They did not give the plaintiff an opportunity to return to administrative work in the front office. Following her termination, the plaintiff filed a suit contending that she was wrongfully terminated by St. Cecilia for age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. At trial, the trial court granted St. Cecilia summary judgment after St. Cecilia argued that the plaintiff’s claim for age discrimination was barred by the ministerial exception as undisputed evidence showed that in her role as an art teacher, she failed to fulfill her responsibility of educating her students in the Catholic faith.

The Court’s Decision

On appeal, the plaintiff argued that the trial court erred in granting summary judgment to St. Cecilia on the basis of the ministerial exception. Specifically, she argued that St. Cecilia waived the ministerial exception by failing to raise it initially as an affirmative defense in its answer. Additionally, she argued that she was not subject to the exception due to her secular role as an art teacher and office administrator. The appellate court opinion agreed in part and disputed in part the plaintiff’s appeal. The appeals court found that St. Cecilia did not in fact waive the ministerial exception as a defense; however, the school was not entitled to summary judgment due to the triable issues of material fact as to whether the exception applied to the art teacher and office administrator positions. As a result, the judgment was reversed and remanded to the trial court, with the motion for summary judgment denied.

Do You Need a California Employment Law Attorney?

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