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Jennifer Bitner and Evelina Herrera were employed as licensed vocational nurses by defendant and respondent California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR).

They filed a class action suit against CDCR alleging that (1) while assigned to duties that included one-on-one suicide monitoring, they were subjected to acts of sexual harassment by prison inmates and, (2) CDCR failed to prevent or remedy the situation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), Government Code section 12940 et seq.

The trial court granted summary judgment in favor of CDCR on the ground that it was entitled to statutory immunity under Government Code section 844.6, which generally provides that “a public entity is not liable for . . . [a]n injury proximately caused by any prisoner.” (§ 844.6, subd. (a).)

The Court of Appeal affirmed the dismissal in the published case of Bitner v Dept of Corrections – E078038 (January 2023).

Plaintiffs appeal, arguing that, as a matter of first impression, the court should interpret section 844.6 to include an exception for claims brought pursuant to FEHA. Plaintiffs also argue that, even if claims under FEHA are not exempt from the immunity granted in section 844.6, the evidence presented on summary judgment did not establish that their injuries were proximately caused’ by prisoners. The Court of Appeal disagreed with both of these arguments.

To the extent plaintiffs argue that section 844.6 is ambiguous because FEHA contains express statutory provision imposing liability on public entities, any ambiguity is easily resolved in light of well-established cannons of construction.

When the language of a statute is clear, courts need go no further. In this case the opinion concluded that “the plain meaning of the statute’s words is clear and unambiguous.

When faced with conflicting statutes providing for governmental immunity and liability, the statute providing immunity will prevail in the absence of any clear indication of a contrary legislative intent.

To the extent there is any doubt on this point, the California Supreme Court’s decision in Caldwell v. Montoya (1995) 10 Cal.4th 972 (Caldwell) is dispositive. In Caldwell, our Supreme Court considered and rejected the argument that FEHA claims should be exempt from the statutory immunity set forth in section 820.2, which provides public employees immunity for discretionary acts.

Plaintiffs attempt to factually distinguish Caldwell by arguing that the case addresses immunity of public employees under a different statute. However, a similar argument was considered and rejected in Towery v. State of California (2017) 14 Cal.App.5th 226, 231-232