Justices Will Hear Challenge to Bias Ruling

Times Staff Writer

The state Supreme Court on Thursday agreed to hear a challenge by employers to an appeal court decision that significantly widened the ability of fired workers to bring suit for sex discrimination.

A state Court of Appeal, ruling in the case of two Los Angeles women who charged that their employer demanded sexual favors in return for keeping them on the job, held last March that workers could sue in court without first resorting to administrative proceedings before the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing.

The appellate panel called the agency's process "largely ineffectual," noting that the vast majority of more than 8,000 cases filed annually were dropped, settled or resolved without a formal hearing.

The appeal court also held that workers could sue not only under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, but also for a violation of "public policy" under a century-old provision of the state Constitution barring sex discrimination in business. Lawyers for employer groups sought high court review, contending that the ruling had unfairly supplied what one attorney called an "AK-47 (assault rifle) to the employee's existing arsenal" of legal weapons.

Steven G. Drapkin of Los Angeles, attorney for the 3,700-member Merchants and Manufacturers Assn., welcomed the justices' action Thursday. He warned that if not overturned, the appeal court ruling could jeopardize the agency's ability to resolve disputes without lawsuits.

Margaret E. Roeckl, an Oakland attorney representing Equal Rights Advocates and other groups backing the two female workers, expressed hope that the high court will uphold the ruling, thus making it an effective deterrent to sex discrimination in the workplace.

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