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Church Affiliate Is Exempt From FEHA Liability, But Liable for $1.9 Million On Other Theories

Mathews v. Happy Valley Conference Ctr., 2019 WL 6769659 (Cal. Ct. App. 2019)

Jeremiah Mathews worked as a maintenance supervisor and cook for Happy Valley Conference Center, which is a subordinate affiliate of Community of Christ (a church). Mathews alleged his employment was terminated in retaliation for his having reported harassment of a younger male employee by Happy Valley’s female executive director. Following a trial, a jury awarded Mathews $900,000 in damages (including punitive damages) and almost $1 million in attorney’s fees. In this appeal, the Court of Appeal reversed the judgment as to the retaliation claim arising under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), holding that defendants were entitled to rely upon the “religious association or corporation” exemption of Cal. Gov’t Code § 12926(d) and that they had neither waived nor were they estopped from relying upon the exemption. The appellate court otherwise affirmed the judgment in favor of Mathews, upholding the trial court’s determination that the church and Happy Valley were a single employer within the meaning of Title VII; that defendants were liable for breach of an implied contract and that they had violated the whistleblower statute (Cal. Lab. Code § 1102.5) for which Mathews was properly awarded $500,000 in punitive damages.

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About this Author

Anthony J Oncidi, Employment Attorney, Proskauer Rose Law Firm

Anthony J. Oncidi heads the Labor & Employment Law Group in the Los Angeles office. Tony represents employers and management in all aspects of labor relations and employment law, including litigation and preventive counseling, wage and hour matters, including class actions, wrongful termination, employee discipline, Title VII and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, executive employment contract disputes, sexual harassment training and investigations, workplace violence, drug testing and privacy issues, Sarbanes-Oxley claims and employee raiding and trade secret protection....