HILDEBRAND v. CEL PAK INC

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Court of Appeal, Third District, California.

Tommie Ann HILDEBRAND, Plaintiff and Respondent, v. CALIFORNIA UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE APPEALS BOARD and California Employment Development Department, Defendants; CEL-A-PAK, INC., a California Corporation, Appellant and Real Party in Interest.

Civ. 15480.

Decided: November 08, 1976

Richard A. Gonzales, Calif. Rural Legal Assistance, Salinas, for plaintiff-respondent. Richard H. Foster, San Francisco, for appellant-real party in interest.

The Unemployment Insurance Appeals Board sustained a decision of its referee disqualifying Tommie Ann Hildebrand, an applicant for unemployment insurance, on the ground that she had left her last job voluntarily without good cause. (Unemp.Ins.Code, § 1256.) The trial court granted the applicant a writ of mandate directing the Board to set aside its decision. Cel-a-Pak, Inc., the applicant's last employer, appeals.

The controversy arises from Mrs. Hildebrand's religiously motivated refusal to work on Saturdays. Cel-a-Pak, the employer, is a seasonal packer of fresh vegetables. Its plant operates from April to January of each year. The harvested produce must be processed while fresh; thus, Cel-a-Pak must operate on many Saturdays during the harvest season. Mrs. Hildebrand went to work in Cel-a-Pak's plant in 1966 and worked each season thereafter. In 1970 she was baptized in the Worldwide Church of God, whose religious tenets prohibit work on Saturday, the Sabbath. She discussed her religious needs with her employer and was accepted for employment during the 1970 and 1971 seasons without reporting for work on Saturdays. During the 1972 season she acceded to the employer's demand that she work on Saturdays. At the opening of the 1973 packing season she told her employer that she would have to observe the Sabbath; the employer informed her that she would not be given Saturdays off. She went to work on April 9, 1973, worked for three days, took sick, received a 60-day sick leave, returned to work on June 11, was instructed on Friday, June 15, that the plant would be operating the next day (Saturday) and informed the employer that she would be at church that day. When she failed to report for work the next day, the employer replaced her.

I

In findings adopted by the Appeals Board, the referee noted the presence of evidence tending to establish that the applicant's refusal to work on Saturdays in 1973 was caused by changes in her financial and social condition rather than by genuine religious conviction. In its own findings the trial court rejected this evidence, declaring: ‘Petitioner's [applicant's] religious beliefs are genuinely held. There is no substantial evidence in the record to support respondents' finding that petitioner's religious beliefs are not bona fide.’

Cel-a-Pak charges the trial court with excess of authority in substituting its own finding of religious sincerity for that of the Appeals Board. It points out that the Appeals Board was in a position to measure Mrs. Hildebrand's credibility and the reviewing court was not, for the latter had only the cold administrative transcript before it.

The scope of appellate review is too narrow to accommodate this charge of error. When as here a trial court exercises independent judgment in reviewing an administrative transcript, its findings of fact must be accepted on appeal if supported by substantial evidence. (Yakov v. Board of Medical Examiners, 68 Cal.2d 67, 72–73, 64 Cal.Rptr. 785, 435 P.2d 553; Moran v. Board of Medical Examiners, 32 Cal.2d 301, 308, 196 P.2d 20.) Where opposing inferences of fact may be drawn from nonconflicting evidence, the trial court's inference may be reviewed only by the substantial evidence test. (Lacy v. California Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bod., 17 Cal.App.3d 1128, 1134–1135, 95 Cal.Rptr. 566.)

The sincerity of an lindividual's religious beliefs is a question of fact. (People v. Woody, 61 Cal.2d 716, 726, 40 Cal.Rptr. 69, 394 P.2d 813.) Here the Appeals Board drew one inference from the evidence, the trial judge another. After refusing to work on Saturdays in 1970 and 1971, the applicant did work on Saturdays during the 1972 vegetable packing season. There was evidence that she did so under protest; that she complained to her local union; that her conscience hurt her for breaking a religious commandment. A minister of her church certified that she was a member and attended church services each Saturday. Despite the Appeals Board's contrary evidence, the trial court could reasonably infer that she performed Saturday work in 1972 only under economic pressure; that eventually her conscience impelled her to assert a positive refusal. Evidence meets the substantial evidence criterion if the fact trier's inference is reasonable. (People v. Kunkin, 9 Cal.3d 245, 250, 107 Cal.Rptr. 184, 507 P.2d 1392.) The trial judge's inference was undebatably reasonable. We are not at liberty to nullify it in favor of the Appeals Board's contrary inference.

II

Whether undisputed evidence establishes a ‘voluntary leaving without good cause’ is an issue of law, fully available for appellate review. (Prescod v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., 57 Cal.App.3d 29, 38, 127 Cal.Rptr. 540.) The central issue is whether the state violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments and invaded the applicant's free exercise of religion by imposing a penalty for resignation1 prompted by religious belief.

The issue turns upon Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 1790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965. In an opinion signed by five justices, the Federal Supreme Court nullified a state unemployment insurance ruling which disqualified a claimant for rejecting suitable work without good cause when her sabbatarian religious beliefs prompted her to refuse Saturday employment. The majority of the court held that the denial of unemployment insurance burdened the free exercise of religion without a compelling state interest to justify it. It declared that the disqualification ‘forces her to choose between following the precepts of her religion and forfeiting benefits, on the one hand, and abandoning one of the precepts of her religion in order to accept work, on the other hand.’ (374 U.S. at p. 404, 83 S.Ct. at 1794.)

In applying the eligibility provisions of the California law, the California unemployment insurance agency and courts are bound by the demands of the First Amendment as authoritatively conceived by the majority opinion in Sherbert v. Verner, supra.

In disqualifying the applicant the Appeals Board postulated a distinction between this case and Verner. The board found that Mrs. Hildebrand had accepted work for both the 1972 and the 1973 seasons knowing that the employer required Saturday work. The Appeals Board decision declares: ‘. . . if her religious scruples conflicted with the job requirements, she should not have accepted the employment. Having accepted, she should not be heard to complain if she lost her employment because of her refusal to comply with the agreed terms of hire.2

The trial court findings do not contradict the Appeals Board finding that Mrs. Hildebrand went to work for Cel-a-Pak in April 1973 with knowledge that Saturday work was required.

Under the California Unemployment Insurance Code, two disqualifications—for rejecting an offer of suitable employment and for voluntary quitting—turn on the presence or absence of good cause. (Unempl.Ins.Code, §§ 1256, 1257, subd. (b).) As a matter of California law, a good faith, conscientious objection constitutes good cause for rejecting an offer of new employment. (Syrek v. California Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., 54 Cal.2d 519, 531, 7 Cal. Rptr. 97, 354 P.2d 625; see also, Prescod v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., 57 Cal.App.3d at p. 40, 127 Cal.Rptr. 540.) Sherbert v. Verner requires the state to recognize a religiously compelled choice as good cause for rejecting a job offer. Here the disqualification was imposed for a voluntary resignation, not for a rejection of new employment.

We need not decide whether ‘good cause’ is always the same for the purpose of both disqualifications. Our question is more limited—whether any meaningful distinction separates this case from the ‘good cause’ concept established by Sherbert v. Verner.

As applied to an existing employment relationship, Sherbert v. Verner was not designed to promote fraud or malingering (see 374 U.S. at p. 407, 83 S.Ct. 1790). We do not construe it to permit an employee to accept work burdened by unpalatable work requirements, then assign those requirements as good cause for quitting. This case escapes such caveats. Cel-a-Pak was a seasonal employer, offering work during the April to January vegetable harvest. From January to April, no employer-employee relationship existed between Cel-a-Pak and Mrs. Hildebrand. The record does not show whether Mrs. Hildebrand worked for another employer during the brief off-season or whether she drew unemployment insurance. At any rate, each April opening of Cel-a-Pak occasioned the renewal of a previously severed employment relationship. (See Garcia v. California Emp. Stab. Com., 71 Cal.App.2d 107, 111–112, 161 P.2d 972; 24 A.L.R.2d 1400.) Had Mrs. Hildebrand refused to go to work for Cel-a-Pak in April 1973, the rule of Sherbert v. Verner would have prevented her disqualification for a refusal of offered new employment.

Although the Appeals Board disqualified Mrs. Hildebrand for resigning from an existing job, the unique circumstances closely paralleled a refusal of new employment. Ordinarily an employer does not accept a work applicant with advance knowledge of the latter's refusal to conform to job specifications. Here the employer put the applicant to work knowing of her refusal to work on Saturdays. The Appeals Board, in effect, charged the employee with accepting the job under false colors and absolved the employer from offering it under those colors. On the assumption that both parties meant to stick by their guns (an assumption borne out by the events), the renewed employment relationship was doomed from the start. Aside from the delay caused by Mrs. Hildebrand's illness and sick leave, the case more resembles a refusal of proffered employment than a discharge or resignation from an established relationship. We perceive no meaningful distinction between this case and Sherbert v. Verner. As the majority of the federal Supreme Court put the matter, to disqualify this applicant either for refusing a job offer or for resigning would ‘apply the eligibility provisions so as to constrain a worker to abandon his religious convictions respecting the day of rest.’ (Sherbert v. Verner, supra, 374 U.S. at p. 410, 83 S.Ct. at p. 1797.)

The employer contends that payment of unemployment insurance benefits singles out sabbatarians for special unemployment insurance treatment, thus offending the First Amendment's stricture against laws ‘respecting an establishment of religion.’ It is true that the Establishment Clause bespeaks ‘a government . . . stripped of all power . . . to support, or otherwise to assist any and all religions . . ..’ (Everson v. Board of Education, 330 U.S. 1, 11, 67 S.Ct. 504, 509, 91 L.Ed. 711, quoted in Sherbert v. Verner, supra, 374 U.S. at p. 415, 83 S.Ct. 1790, separate opinion of Stewart, J.; see also, Mandel v. Hodges, 54 Cal.App.3d 596, 610–611, 127 Cal.Rptr. 244.) Nevertheless, the majority in Sherbert v. Verner hold that the state exercises neutrality and does not violate the Establishment Clause when it pays unemployment insurance to an applicant whose joblessness stems from religious belief. (374 U.S. at pp. 409–410, 83 S.Ct. 1790.) We are bound by the latter holding and therefore reject this contention of the employer.

The parties have cited a number of decisions involving claims of religious discrimination in employment arising under title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (42 U.S.C., § 2000e, et seq.) It is not clear that the California unemployment insurance agency and the California courts must conduct an original, collateral inquiry into the Civil Rights Act whenever an unemployment insurance applicant charges a violation of that act as ‘good cause’ for quitting or refusing work. (See Prescod v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., supra, 57 Cal.App.3d at pp. 36–37, 127 Cal.Rptr. 540; Warriner v. Unemployment Ins. Appeals Bd., 32 Cal.App.3d 353, 363, 108 Cal.Rptr. 153, dissent of Jefferson, J.) In this case the finding of good cause is compelled by Sherbert v. Verner, supra, and no inquiry into the Civil Rights Act is necessary.

Judgment affirmed.

I concur in the result, being compelled to do so by reason of the holding in Sherbert v. Verner, 374 U.S. 398, 83 S.Ct. 790, 10 L.Ed.2d 965.

FOOTNOTES

1.  On appeal Mrs. Hildebrand argues that she did not resign but was discharged when she failed to appear for Saturday work. Consistently with its own decisions, the Appeals Board held that her unwillingness to work when work was available amounted to a voluntary leaving. We accept that phase of the Appeals Board's ruling. (See Appeals Board Precedent Decisions P–B–144, P–B–37; see also, Boren v. Department of Employment Development, 59 Cal.App.3d 250, 254, 130 Cal.Rptr. 683.)

2.  At this point the Appeals Board relied on Stimpel v. State Personnel Bd., 6 Cal.App.3d 206, 209–210, 85 Cal.Rptr. 797. The Stimpel court sustained dismissal of a state employee who declined to work on Saturdays because of his religious faith. The Stimpel opinion distinguished Sherbert v. Verner, declaring arguendo: ‘We conclude that if a person has religious scruples which conflict with the requirements of a particular job with the state, he should not accept employment or, having accepted, he should not be heard to complain if he is discharged for failing to fulfill his duties.’ (Pp. 209–210, 85 Cal.Rptr. p. 799.) According to the Stimpel opinion, the employee had worked for the state for approximately one-and-a-half years before his superiors demanded Saturday work. Thus the arguendo statement in the Stimpel opinion is not supported by its statement of facts. In any event, Stimpel was not an unemployment insurance case and does not govern here.

FRIEDMAN, Acting Presiding Justice.

EVANS, J., concurs.

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