Reversing $1 Million Judgment against Los Angeles, the California Court of Appeals Ruled Continuing Violation Doctrine did not apply to Firefighter’s Decades-Old Race Discrimination and Harassment Claims

The California Court of Appeal reversed a $1 million judgment against the City of Los Angeles in a racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation case brought by a firefighter under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. Jumaane v. City of Los Angeles. After 12 years of litigation and two jury trials, the Court ruled that the firefighter’s claims occurred outside the one-year statute of limitations period and that the “continuing violation” exception to the statute of limitations did not apply.

Jubari Jumanne began working as a firefighter for the City of Los Angeles in 1986. Throughout the 1990’s, Jumanne repeatedly complained about racial harassment in the fire department; he also complained about various disciplinary action taken against him in 1998 and 1999 as racially motivated and retaliatory. In February 2000, Jumaane was added to the on-call inspector assignment for the Hydrants and Access Unit. The on-call assignment required the inspector to take an on-call vehicle home so that he could respond quickly in case of an emergency. On March 8, 2000, Jumaane was assigned as an on-call inspector; however, he failed to bring the on-call vehicle home. Consequently, Jumaane was suspended from April 16 to April 30, 2001.

On April 16, 2002, Jumaane filed a complaint with the Department of Fair Employment and against the City for alleged racial discrimination, harassment and retaliation. At trial, Jumaane presented evidence regarding the alleged discrimination, harassment and retaliation he experienced in the 1990’s. The City repeatedly objected to such evidence as time-barred since the incidents occurred more than one year before April 16, 2001. The City asked the trial court to instruct the jury regarding the continuing violation doctrine, but the trial court refused to do so. The jury returned a verdict in favor of Jumaane and awarded him $1 million in compensatory damages. The City appealed.

An employee suing for violations of FEHA ordinarily cannot recover for acts occurring more than one year before the filing of the DFEH complaint, unless the continuing violation doctrine applies. The continuing violation doctrine requires proof that the conduct occurring outside the limitations period was (1) similar or related to the conduct that occurred earlier; (2) the conduct was reasonably frequent; and (3) the conduct had not yet become permanent. In other words, the statute of limitations begins to run either when the course of conduct is brought to an end or when the employee is on notice that further efforts to end the unlawful conduct will be in vain.

The Court ruled that, although Jumaane had demonstrated that a series of related discriminatory acts occurred from the early 1990’s to his suspension in 2001, Jumaane testified that by 1999, he knew future efforts to address alleged racial discrimination would be futile. Consequently, all conduct occurring before 1999 was time-barred. The Court also found that Jumaane failed to present sufficient evidence establishing his claims for discrimination, harassment or retaliation within the limitations period. Consequently, the Court of Appeals determined that Jumaane’s claims failed and reversed the judgment against the City.

This case emphasizes the need for employers to address or investigate claims of harassment immediately and take effective remedial action to resolve any concerns, particularly where an employee makes repeated complaints. By acting promptly and responsively, employers may decrease the risk that continuing violation exception will apply and extend the statute of limitations.