December 23, 2019

Anti-whistleblower retaliation act for school employees does not authorize punitive damages against school districts (Visalia Unified School District v. Superior Court)

This published opinion addresses an issue of first impression: whether the Reporting by School Employees of Improper Activities Act (the Act) authorizes recovery of punitive damages against school districts.

The plaintiff, a former employee of the Visalia Unified School District, sued the District for retaliation in violation of the Act, seeking compensatory and punitive damages.  The Act authorizes recovery of punitive damages against a "person" who intentionally and maliciously engages in an act of retaliation.  For purposes of the Act, a "person" includes any state or local government.

The District moved to strike the punitive damages claim under Government Code section 818, which prohibits punitive damages against public entities.  The superior court denied the motion, finding that the Act impliedly supersedes section 818 because the Legislature adopted the Act in 2000, long after it adopted section 818 (in 1983). 

The Fifth Appellate District granted the District's petition for writ relief and reversed the trial court's ruling.  The Court of Appeal concluded that the trial court had overlooked key language in section 818, which bars punitive damages against public entities "notwithstanding any other provision of law."  The Court of Appeal also held that section 818 is a fundamental part of California public entity law, supported by strong public policy.  The court concluded that, if the Legislature had intended to overturn such an important rule, it would have done so expressly.