Terminated Club House Employee Loses Racial Harassment Case Against Pro Team

Sep 23, 2022

By Jeff Birren, Senior Writer

Essex Wayne Brown, a former clubhouse manager for the Sacramento River Cats, sued the Reno Aces, alleging claims including racial harassment and for failure to prevent racial harassment. Brown was employed by the Sacramento River Cats, a Pacific Coast League (PCL) team, as the manager of the visiting team’s clubhouse. The Reno Aces, also in the PCL and affliated with the Arizona Diamondbacks of Major League Baseball (“MLB”), played at Sacramento twice in 2014 and according to Brown, the Aces treated him poorly in 2014.  Those problems continued into the 2015 season, and the River Cats terminated Brown in July 2015.

Brown’s case against the Aces was dismissed on summary judgment and he subsequently appealed two of the dismissed claims. However, the California Court of Appeal recently affirmed the ruling, (Brown v. SK Baseball, (the “Aces”), C0982888, Third Appellate District, unpublished., LEXIS  4284; WL 2662507 (7-11-22)). 

Brown was hired by the River Cats in 2014 to maintain and operate the visiting team’s clubhouse (Id. at 2). He alleged that in 2014 the Aces’s athletic trainer, Joseph Metz, “was rude and disrespectful to Brown, and refused to work with him to plan the Aces’s visit.” Metz allegedly “loudly complained about him” and “let it be known that he thought Brown was doing a bad job.” Brown further asserted that Metz “threatened” to have him fired and “used an egregious racial epithet against him.” Brown claimed that he reported these issues to the River Cats and the Diamondbacks. 

Brown returned to the River Cats for the 2015 season, but his problems continued. The Aces returned to play at Sacramento in June 2015. Afterwards, Brown claimed that the Aces’s team manager “yelled and cursed at Brown for giving him a wrinkled shirt, saying that Brown was everything that Metz said he was the year before.” Later that day, “Metz upbraided Brown for failing to fill a therapeutic ice tub” and “then threw an ice bucket across the room, striking him in the leg.”

During the 2015 season another team’s trainer “created a survey rating clubhouses and clubhouse managers in the league.” The River Cats’ “visiting clubhouse received the lowest rating in the survey.” The River Cats “concluded the survey results reflected poorly on Brown and called into question his ability to continue as clubhouse manager.” As a result, the River Cats terminated Brown on July 14, 2015.

Brown responded to his termination with litigation. He sued the River Cats, the Diamondbacks and Metz, and filed another lawsuit against the Aces. His case against the Aces had five causes of action, including a cause of action for racial harassment, (Gov. Code §12940(j)); a cause of action for failure to prevent racial harassment, (§12940(k)); for retaliation; aiding and abetting violation of the Code; and for unfair business practices in violation of Bus. & Prof. Code §17,2000. 

The Aces moved for summary judgment, arguing “that Brown could not establish” his causes of action “because the undisputed facts showed that he was employed by the River Cats, not SK Baseball” (Id. at 3). Nevertheless, Brown argued that he was jointly employed by the River Cats “and every other team comprising MLB, as well as their affiliated minor league teams, including the Reno Aces.” The trial court ruled that Brown failed to allege a joint employment in his Second Amended Complaint (“SAC”) and “failed to present evidence of a triable issue of material fact as to the existence of an employment relationship” with the Aces. The trial court. therefore, granted the Aces’s summary judgment motion.

Brown appealed the dismissal of his causes of action for racial harassment in violation of §12940(j), and for failure to prevent discrimination and harassment in violation of §12940(k).  He did not appeal the other three dismissed causes of action (Id. at 2, FN 4). The Court of Appeal stated that summary judgment “is appropriate when all the papers show there is no triable issue of material fact and the moving party is entitled to judgement as a matter of law.” Its purpose is to determine whether trial is in fact necessary to resolve the dispute.

A defendant making such a motion has “the initial burden of presenting evidence” that would either show a cause of action lacks merit “or there is a complete defense” (Id. at 4). If that happens, the plaintiff must show “that a triable issue of material facts exists, and that is so “only if, the evidence reasonably permits the trier of fact to find the contested fact in favor of the plaintiff in accordance with the applicable standard of proof.”

Such rulings are reviewed de novo, although the court views “the evidence in a light favorable to the party opposing” the motion, “resolving all doubts concerning the evidence in favor of the opposing party.”  The Court reviews all the evidence presented except for evidence the trial court “properly excluded.” The appellant has the burden “to affirmatively demonstrate error” and “review is limited to issues which have been adequately raised and briefed.”

California created “a comprehensive scheme intended to protect and safeguard the right and opportunity to seek and hold employment free from prohibited discrimination and harassment.” The relevant statute prohibits “employment discrimination… not discrimination or retaliation in other relationships” (Id., italics in the original). The “fundamental foundation for liability is the ‘existence of an employment relationship between the one who discriminates against another and that other finds himself the victim of discrimination.’”

The statute § 1240(j) states, “prohibits harassment ‘because of race’” and protects “an employee, an applicant or unpaid intern or volunteer,” while  subsection (k) “proscribes an employer’s failure to ‘take all reasonable steps necessary to prevent discrimination and harassment from occurring’” (Id. at 5).  Brown did not argue that he was an Aces’s employee but rather that he was “a person providing services pursuant to a contract.” However, subsection (k) does not apply to independent contractors and Brown “does not suggest that he had any other employment relationship with SK Baseball.” Therefore, the Court concluded “no error has been shown” as to that cause of action and consequently “summary adjudication was properly granted” by the trial court.

The Court then turned to the § 1240(j) cause of action. This required showing that Brown provided services to the Aces “pursuant to a contract.” To succed on his claim, Brown had to meet the following criteria: (a) that the Aces had the right to control his performance; (b) that Brown was customarily engaged in an independently established business; and (c) the person has control over the time and place the work is performed, supplies the tools used in the work and performs work “that requires a particular skill not ordinarily used in the course of the employer’s work.” The question was thus whether Brown was an independent contractor.

The SAC alleged that Brown was employed by the River Cats. It further claimed that he was “a person providing services pursuant to a contract,” but it did not “specifically allege that he provided services to SK Baseball or the Reno Aces” (Id. at 6).  Nevertheless, the Court concluded that the SAC encompassed Brown’s theory that he was providing services to the Aces.

The Aces “presented evidence that Brown was directly employed by the River Cats” and not the Aces. This included a declaration that “Brown had never been employed by that organization” and evidence from Brown’s deposition testimony that “he received paychecks from the River Cats and was not familiar with SK Baseball.” This was “sufficient” “to find that Brown was not an employee or person providing services to SK Baseball pursuant to a contract.” The “burden thus shifted to Brown,” according to the Court. 

Brown’s opposition “admitted the was employed by the River Cats but argued that they were not his only employer.” He provided services pursuant to a contract and somehow obtained the status of an independent contractor. Unfortunately for Brown, this argument was “not supported by the record.” To begin with, “Brown does not tell [the Court] anything about any alleged contract” nor did the record “support the existence of a contract for services between Brown and the River Cats, on one hand, and the Reno Aces or SK Baseball, on the other hand.” There was also nothing in the record to support his “attempt to meet the statutory definition of an independent contractor.”  

The Court again quoted § 12940(j), then stated: “Brown pays lip service to these requirements,” but “offers no record evidence raising a triable issue of fact as to any of them” (Id. at 7).  Brown further argued that “he and/or the River Cats provided, equipped and maintained the clubhouse,” that “the River Cats paid his salary and benefits,” and that “managing the clubhouse and caring for the players required a set of hospitality skills different than playing baseball.” He also asserted that he “worked the hours necessary to get the job done.” Yet, Brown made his arguments “without citation to the record.” Furthermore, these “unsupported arguments and allegations do not demonstrate error and do not raise a triable issue of material fact” as to his “status as an independent contractor.”

The Court concluded by stating that a “fundamental rule of appellate review is that an appealed judgment is presumed to be correct, and error must be affirmatively shown.” This requires citing evidence in the record that shows the existence of a triable issue of fact. That level of evidental support is the appellant’s duty, and Brown failed “to demonstrate error with respect to the threshold issue of standing.” Therefore, the Court had “no occasion to consider his other arguments.” With that, the Court affirmed the judgment.

To conclude, assuming Brown believed the facts he asserted it is easy to understand why he would be angry at the Aces. But anger did not make him their employee, and that fact was fatal to his case. This lawsuit could be expensive for Brown, and one wonders if counsel told him that he could be liable for the Aces’ court costs. Those seeking to bring such claims would be well advised to pay close attention to the law before filing a potentially costly lawsuit. Brown also sued the River Cats for his termination, and whatever may happen in that case, at least he met the threshold issue since there is no question that he had been their employee. 

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