Class Action Defense Cases-Hall v. County of Los Angeles: Defense Properly Granted Summary Judgment In Sex Discrimination Labor Law Class Action Against County California Court Holds

Mar 13, 2007 | By: Michael J. Hassen

California Appellate Court Affirms Summary Judgment in Favor of Defense Because no Evidence Supported Class Action Allegations that County Program Discriminated Against Women or Affected Women Disproportionately to Men

Plaintiff filed a putative class action against the County of Los Angeles alleging that it violated the federal Equal Pay Act because it paid female lawyers employed under the County’s “Auxiliary Legal Services” program (ALS) less than it paid male lawyers serving as County Counsel. Hall v. County of Los Angeles, ___ Cal.App..4th ___, 2007 WL 529963, *1 (Cal.App. February 22, 2007). Defense attorneys moved for summary judgment; the trial court granted the defense motion and the California Court of Appeal affirmed. The appellate court held that “the wage disparity between ALS and County Counsel was based on an acceptable business reason, which is a recognized ‘factor other than sex.’” Id., at *4 (citation omitted).

In 1984, in order to address a dramatic increase in juvenile court cases, the County formed ALS to supplement the legal services provided by County Counsel. The ALS attorneys were independent contractors, and by the express terms of their contracts they were employees of ALS, not the County. Hall, at *1. ALS was intended to allow the County to realize cost savings by hiring additional attorneys on “as needed” basis “without increasing the number of permanent classified County employees.” Id. “Similarly situated male and female lawyers at ALS were treated the same in terms of salary and benefits, and similarly situated male and female lawyers at County Counsel were treated the same in terms of salary and benefits.” Id., at *2. The class action complaint alleged, however, that there were more female lawyers at ALS than at County Counsel, and that female lawyers at ALS were not paid comparably with male lawyers at County Counsel. Id.

The trial court and appellate court found the class action complaint’s allegations fell wide of the mark. First, even assuming arguendo that the County was the “common employer” of ALS and County lawyers, “she is using the wrong comparator [because] the appropriate comparator is male ALS lawyers.” Hall, at *3. The Court of Appeal explained at page *3, “Because undisputed evidence establishes that … ALS and County Counsel both employed a substantial number of women and that, within ALS, women were paid the same as men, there is no basis for [plaintiff’s] use of a male County Counsel lawyer as a comparator. For this reason alone, [plaintiff’s] claims fail as a matter of law.” (Citation omitted.) Moreover, the appellate court held that summary judgment in favor of the defense was appropriate in this putative class action because “the two-tier wage and benefits system is not discriminatory because there was a legitimate and non-discriminatory cost-savings purpose for ALS’ existence.” Id., at *4 (citations omitted).

Finally, the Court of Appeal rejected plaintiff’s claim that her class action complaint alleged sex-based disparate treatment and disparate impact claims that were not proper to resolve by summary judgment. Hall, at *4. The appellate court explained that plaintiff had failed to establish a prima facie case of disparate treatment or disparate impact because there was no evidence that the County created ALS because it would have adverse consequences to female lawyers or that ALS adversely affected women more than men. Id., at *4-*5.

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