Santa Ana Unified School District (2017) PERB Decision No. 2514-E (Issued on 02/08/17)
The unfair practice charge in this case was filed on March 10, 2006. A complaint was issued on 6/12/06. On September 19, 2008, notice was sent for a formal hearing to be held on February 6, 2009. The charging party then asked to place the matter in abeyance due to her medical condition. Nothing happened in the case until August 24, 2012, when a new ALJ was assigned. In 2012, the new ALJ began discussions with the parties on how to move the case forward. The district argued that laches should apply since witness memories had faded. The ALJ held a couple of pre-trial conferences and entertained a motion to dismiss by the district with supporting declarations. The charging party responded with an opposition and more declarations. On January 31, 2014, the ALJ granted the district’s motion to dismiss. The charging party then filed exceptions which were completed on or about April 14, 2014. The Board issued this decision on February 8, 2017.
Failure to Prosecute/Laches
In its decision, the Board affirmed the affirmative defense of “laches” which applies when there has: 1) been an unreasonable delay in the prosecution of a case; and 2) the delay has caused prejudice to the opposing party. In the ruling on the motion to dismiss, the ALJ analogized this case to CCP section 583.310 which allows for the dismissal of a civil action if not brought to trial within 5 years. Because the Board held that the ALJ should have held an evidentiary hearing, it did not opine on whether the present facts met the standard for laches. However, based on the language used by the Board it does appear the Board will turn to analogous court decisions in determining whether a defense of laches has been proven.
Motion to Dismiss
The ALJ in this matter issued a ruling on a motion to dismiss and made factual findings based on declarations from both sides. The Board held that this was improper because the ruling necessarily required the ALJ to make credibility determinations which should only be done at a formal hearing. The Board compared the motion to dismiss to a motion for judgment on the pleadings, which requires that all material facts in the pleading being attacked be accepted as true. Accordingly, the Board reversed the dismissal of the case and remanded it for further proceedings. The Board expressly stated that the district could renew its motion to dismiss based on a failure to prosecute and/or laches when the proceedings continued.
- At first blush, this case seems to be a good candidate for a laches defense. The charge was filed in 2006. By 2014 a formal hearing still had not been held. It’s now 2017 and the case is being returned for more proceedings. Even if the charging party suffered from legitimate medical issues, it seems very unfair to force an employer to defend allegations that are over ten years old. So, I fully expect the district to raise the issue of laches in further proceedings.
- In terms of PERB practice, the Board held that a motion to dismiss cannot be used to resolve a case where there are material facts in dispute. The Board compared a motion to dismiss to a motion for judgment on the pleadings and/or a motion for summary judgment. The Board noted that neither civil motion is designed to resolve disputed issues of material fact. The Board also noted that having a hearing is essential where there are witness credibility determinations that must be made.
- I understand the Board’s position on the use of motions to dismiss and I don’t necessarily disagree with what the Board is saying in this decision. As I read this decision, it does not foreclose the use of motions to dismiss but just emphasizes that they are not meant to resolve disputed issues of material fact without a hearing. In my mind, there are still situations where it makes sense to file a motion to dismiss. You just have to make sure it’s an appropriate situation.