Bennett v. Rancho Cal. Water Dist.Annotate this Case
Plaintiff Shawn Bennett sued defendant Rancho California Water District (the District) for whistleblower retaliation in violation of Labor Code section 1102.5(b). The matter was tried in front of a jury, and the trial court excluded evidence showing Bennett’s relationship with the District was anything other than an employment relationship. Citing an administrative law judge’s prior finding Bennett had been the District’s employee for purposes of retirement benefits eligibility through the California Public Employees’ Retirement System (CalPERS), the trial court concluded the doctrine of collateral estoppel applied and established Bennett had been the District’s employee. To this, the Court of Appeal reversed for a new trial. The Court held a party was not collaterally estopped from litigating an issue when, in a prior proceeding, a dispositive finding had been made, but only by imposing a lesser burden of proof on the party invoking collateral estoppel than that which would have been applied in the subsequent proceeding. The Court found in the prior CalPERS proceeding, the administrative law judge expressly assigned to the District the burden of proving Bennett had been its independent contractor and thereby entirely relieved Bennett of the burden of proof on that issue. The trial court therefore erred by finding the doctrine of collateral estoppel applicable and precluding litigation of Bennett’s employment status. At the retrial, the common law definition of employee will apply to Bennett’s section 1102.5(b) claim.