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Calif. Court Recognizes Ventura Clinic Workers as Public Employees, Orders County to Process Union Petition


In California, the Meyers-Milias-Brown Act (MMBA) protects the right of public employees to communicate with their government employers through a union. The MMBA requires a public employer to meet and engage in “good faith” negotiations with a recognized employee union to bargain wages, hours, and other terms of conditions of employment.

The California Second District Court of Appeal in Los Angeles recently issued a published decision, County of Ventura v. Public Employment Relations Board, holding the MMBA requires Ventura County, California, to negotiate with a union representing non-physician employees of medical clinics that are privately owned but under contract with the county to provide medical services. Ventura County argued that the private clinics were the “sole” employers, and the MMBA does not cover private businesses. But the Court of Appeal disagreed and held the County was in fact a “joint” employer.

To give some additional background, Ventura County’s Health Care Agency owns and operates the Ventura County Medical Center. The Medical Center, in turn, provides outpatient healthcare services to the public through 17 privately owned primary care clinics. These clinics are publicly affiliated with the Medical Center, which advertises them as an option for “underserved” populations.

The private clinics each signed a “Professional Services and Operations Agreement” with the Medical Center. Under these agreements, the private clinic acts as a “licensed operator” of the Medical Center. The clinic’s patients and records are therefore considered those of the Medical Center. The Medical Center also provides the actual facilities, equipment, and furnishings for each of the clinics. Ventura County must also approve each clinic’s annual budget. The County actually collects all clinic revenues, and returns a portion of that money to the private operators as a “monthly administration fee.”

The Service Employees International Union (SEIU) filed a petition to be recognized under the MMBA as the bargaining unit for the clinics’ non-physician employees. Ventura County refused to process the petition, arguing that despite the arrangements described above, the private clinic operators were the sole “employer” here. The general counsel for the California Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) subsequently filed a complaint against the County, alleging it was the employer and therefore required to process the petition.

The Board, and later the Second District, upheld the general counsel’s complaint. As the Second District explained, there was a “joint employer” relationship here. That is to say, the private clinics and Ventura County both “exercised control over compensation and staffing decisions.” Among other reasons, the court noted that the clinics’ operations agreements “required the Clinics to share staff as needed with other Clinics and VCMC hospitals to ensure minimal staffing levels are maintained.” And since the County ultimately “retained the right to control the manner and method in which” the employees’ worked, those employees had the right to bargain their working conditions via a union.

Get Advice from a California Employment Law Attorney

The Second District’s decision reaffirms the strong labor organizing rights afforded to public employees under California law. If your own employer is thwarting your efforts to recognize a union or engage in good-faith negotiations regarding working conditions, you should speak to a qualified California employment law attorney to learn more about your legal options.


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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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