Community College Shielded by Immunity from Coach’s Lawsuit

Feb 24, 2012

A federal judge from the Northern District of California has effectively dismissed the claim of a coach, who alleged that the Redwoods Community College District (RCCD) and its employees conspired to fraudulently deprive him of wages “it legally owed” him when it paid him a stipend instead of the hourly rate he was “entitled” to receive.
Specifically, the court found that the defendant, RCCD, was shielded by governmental immunity on any promises that its employees made, and second, that the plaintiff was not entitled to a declaratory judgment as he was no longer an “interested party,” given that he was employed elsewhere.
Todd Zeigler was employed as an athletic coach by RCCD, which is based in Eureka, CA, in one capacity or another from approximately 1992 through 2009. The plaintiff was paid by stipend, even though those positions were classified as hourly positions. As a result, the plaintiff worked thousands of hours over the course of fifteen years for which he claimed he was never paid.
On the basis of those allegations, the plaintiff alleged five causes of action: “(1) Negligence; (2) Negligence Per Se; (3) Violation of Mandatory Duty against Defendant RCCD; (4) Civil Liability under RICO, 18 U.S.C. § 1962(c), against all individual Defendants; and (5) Declaratory and Injunctive Relief.”
The RCCD moved to dismiss the plaintiff’s complaint on the grounds that “(1) all of the plaintiff’s claims for monetary relief must fail because RCCD, as a public entity, is immune from liability for the misrepresentations of its employees; and (2) the plaintiff lacks standing to seek declaratory or injunctive relief because he is no longer employed by RCCD.”
The plaintiff countered that “(1) although the defendant RCCD is immune from liability stemming from false statements by employees, such immunity does not bar claims for negligence or negligence per se; and (2) the plaintiff has standing to seek declaratory relief because the defendants’ unlawful scheme is ongoing and continues to impact the defendant RCCD’s assistant coaches.”
In evaluating the arguments, the court turned first to California Government Code § 818.8, which provides that “[a] public entity is not liable for an injury caused by misrepresentation by an employee of the public entity, whether or not such misrepresentation be negligent or intentional.” Cal. Gov. Code § 818.8.
The court honed in on specific case law: “Where an employee of a public entity makes a misrepresentation regarding the terms of hiring an employee, the immunity provided by § 818.8 prevents the public entity from being directly liable.” Burden v. Cnty. of Santa Clara, 81 Cal. App. 4th 244, 250-51, 96 Cal. Rptr. 2d 587 (Cal. Ct. App. 2000).
But the allegation is a bit more complex, according to the court, which noted that the plaintiff is labeling the defendant’s actions as negligence when it may have meant that the actions were fraudulent.
“The plaintiff is in effect seeking to recover for a series of allegedly fraudulent misrepresentations made by the employees of a public entity,” wrote the court. “The plaintiff effectively concedes that his cause of action for negligence could be re-characterized as fraud.” The challenge, continued the court, is that fraud is easy to allege, but difficult to prove.
“Allowing the plaintiff to recover for the defendant RCCD’s employees’ allegedly fraudulent behavior under a negligence theory, however, would ‘permit evasion’ of the statutory immunity provided by § 818.8. The plaintiff states no factual basis for recovery independent of the alleged misrepresentations of the defendant RCCD’s employees. Thus, the court finds that the defendant RCCD is immune from liability for the conduct alleged by the plaintiff.”
Turning to whether the plaintiff is entitled to declaratory relief, the court noted that the plaintiff “subsequently obtained employment with a different college utilizing a different pay structure. On the basis of the allegation that the plaintiff is no longer employed by the defendant RCCD, the court finds that the plaintiff is not an ‘interested party’ within the meaning of the Declaratory Judgment Act. Because the plaintiff is no longer employed by the defendant RCCD and makes no allegation that he will seek employment with the defendant RCCD in the future, any declaration by the court regarding the legality of the defendant RCCD’s payment structure will have no impact on the plaintiff’s legal rights or obligations. Thus, the court would essentially be offering an advisory opinion as to the legality of the defendant RCCD’s practices.”
Todd Zeigler v. Redwoods Cmty. Coll. Dist., et al.; N.D. Cal.; NO. C 11-04849 JW, 2011 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 148607; 12/15/11.
Attorneys of Record: (for plaintiff) Peter Eric Martin, LEAD ATTORNEY, Peter E. Martin, A Law Corporation, Eureka, CA. (for defendants) Michael Charles Wenzel, LEAD ATTORNEY, Eugene Burton Elliot, Bertrand Fox & Elliot, San Francisco, CA.


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