Articles Posted in California Employment Law Cases

To succeed on a claim for wrongful termination from employment, a plaintiff must show that his or her termination was substantially motivated by a violation of public policy. Only when a plaintiff proves that he or she was fired for reasons such as discrimination or retaliation can that plaintiff receive a favorable verdict. A court of appeals in California recently demonstrated how strict the standard for wrongful termination cases can be, denying a plaintiff relief after she claimed she had suffered discrimination from her employer based on a disability.

According to the facts in the opinion, the plaintiff was working as a nurse and was terminated in 2017 after almost 20 years of employment. In her complaint, the plaintiff described her work in patient care and listed the dates during which she began taking medical leave for an undisclosed illness. The medical leave started in 2015 and occurred sporadically through early 2017.

In January 2017, the plaintiff received what is called a “Corrective Action Level 4 write-up,” which included allegations and complaints against the plaintiff dating back to 2015. Two weeks later, she was suspended, and three months after the suspension, her employment was terminated. The plaintiff argued in her complaint that her disability and time on medical leave were substantial motivating factors for the termination and that if it had not been for her disability, she would not have been fired. The lower court denied the plaintiff’s request for relief, and she promptly appealed.

California workers who have been subject to unfair or illegal employment practices by their employers may have several different routes to fight back against unfair treatment by employers. In addition to state legal remedies, such as a breach of contract claim, wronged employees can pursue federal legal and administrative remedies through federal courts or the U.S. Department of Labor. California has also passed laws allowing wronged employees to seek equitable remedies for mistreatment.

One such remedy comes through applying California’s Unfair Competition Law (UCL), which gives workers a separate cause of action to address unfair labor practices. The California Court of Appeals recently heard a case in which a plaintiff brought a claim of unlawful business practices under the UCL against their former employer, alleging that the defendant’s failure to pay the plaintiff’s due wages was a violation of the law. In the recently decided case, the plaintiff brought suit against the defendant for failing to pay sufficient wages under an employment agreement. According to the procedural history discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff made legal claims for breach of contract based on unpaid wages and failure to reimburse business expenses and brought up equitable claims under the UCL with the same complaints.

The defendant responded to the plaintiff’s lawsuit by seeking to compel arbitration of the plaintiff’s claims as agreed to in the employment contract. The parties’ employment contract contained a provision that legal claims for wage loss would be handled in arbitration; however, the contract specifically stated that equitable claims under the UCL were not subject to mandatory arbitration. The plaintiff agreed to dismiss their non-UCL claims but sought to have the UCL claim heard in court, not at arbitration. Based on the language of the arbitration agreement in the employment contract, the trial court denied the defendant’s motion to compel arbitration, triggering the appeal.

The Court of Appeals of California recently issued an opinion addressing several employment claims, including whether a union may be responsible for aiding and abetting discrimination. The plaintiff in this matter filed a wrongful termination case against his employer, a janitorial services company, and the union that represents the employer. The relevant issue on appeal is whether the trial court erred in denying the plaintiff’s leave to amend to claim that the Union aided and abetted the employer’s violation.

In 2012, the employer hired the plaintiff to work as an “additional services” employee to provide janitorial services at a location. About a year later, the employer-provided written confirmation that the plaintiff was a “permanent employee.” In 2014, the plaintiff took leave under the California Family Rights Act (CFRA) to care for his terminally ill wife. A day after returning to work, his supervisor informed him that he was terminated because another employee had filled the position. Shortly after his termination, the plaintiff filed a discrimination and retaliation charge against his employer and the Union.

In response, the employer argued that they unintentionally and erroneously issued the plaintiff a “permanent employee” letter. Further, they explained that another employee was next in line to obtain the position according to their seniority scheme. The Union argued that their actions were not motivated by discrimination but solely their responsibility to enforce their seniority hiring protocols.

California’s anti-SLAPP statute refers to the Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation. Lawmakers designed the statute to protect those who wish to speak out about public policy issues against more powerful corporate entities. In California, the term primarily refers to lawsuits stemming from discouraging speech about significant issues or public participation in governmental proceedings.

While the statute provides many benefits, it also has significant implications for California employees wishing to pursue employment discrimination or retaliation against their employers. Anti-SLAPP statutes permit defendant employers to present a motion to strike causes of action that stems from “any act of that person in furtherance of the person’s right of petition or free speech under the United States Constitution or the California Constitution; in connection with a public issue.”

Following a California Supreme Court case, the Court held that the anti-SLAPP statutes do not include an exception for retaliation or discrimination claims. As such, a plaintiff’s allegations against an employer’s motives will not protect the claim from preliminary screening for merit.

California’s Supreme Court recently issued a significant decision concerning California meal periods for employees. In California, in general, employers must give employees with a 30-minute meal period after at least the fifth hour of work and after at least the tenth hour of work. If an employee is not provided a compliant meal period, then the employer must pay the employee an additional hour of pay at the regular rate for each workday during which the meal period was not provided. In practice, many employers round time punches to the nearest quarter of an hour, one-tenth of an hour, or five minutes.

In the case before the Court, the Court considered whether rounding time was permissible in the context of a meal period. In the case of a named plaintiff in the class-action lawsuit, the plaintiff’s employer used a timekeeping system that rounded the time punches to the nearest 10-minute increment. So if an employee clocked out for lunch at 11:02 and clocked in at 11:25, it would be recorded as 11:00 and 11:30. Thus, the employee’s meal period was only 23 minutes, as opposed to the full 30 minutes. An expert estimated that the use of the timekeeping system resulted in a denial of premium wages for short and delayed lunches amounting to over $800,000.

The Court maintained that employers could not round time in the context of meal periods. The court held that time rounding does not comply with the precise time requirements set out in Labor Code section 512 and Wage Order No. 4. The court reasoned that the relatively short length of a 30-minute meal period means that the potential incursion on that period is significant. The court held that the provisions concerning meal periods are intended to prevent even minor infringements on the meal period requirements, and rounding time does not meet that objective. The court held that even if the employer overpaid the members of the class for actual work based on the timekeeping, the issue is whether the rounding policy resulted in the proper payment of premium wages for meal period violations. The court also held that if an employer’s records indicate that no meal period was taken for a shift over five hours, there is a rebuttable presumption that the employee was not relieved of duty and no meal period was provided. Thus, the employer can assert this as a defense, and it is the employer’s burden to plead and prove that assertion.

The law requires that employers provide non-exempt California employees the ability to receive meal breaks and rest periods. In some instances, employers must provide exempt employees with the right to take meal breaks. The law does not extend to certain workers such as farm and domestic workers, or personal attendants. Under the state’s wage and hour law, non-exempt employees must receive a thirty-minute meal break if they work more than five hours in a day. The employer must allow for the break within the first five hours of the workday. Those who work more than ten hours are entitled to a second 30-minute break. Similarly, employers must provide exempt employees with a ten-minute rest break for those working more than three and a half or more hours. Employers who violate these laws may be subject to a California employment lawsuit.

For instance, the Supreme Court of California recently decided two questions of law related to a class-action lawsuit against an employer for wage-and-hour violations. In this case, the defendant is a healthcare service and staffing company. The company assigned the plaintiff to work eight-hour days at various shifts. The defendant maintained a policy that the meal period was for an “uninterrupted” 30 minutes, and workers were relieved from job duties during and could leave the premises during this period. Further, the policy specified that supervisors should not discourage workers from using this meal period.

Although the policy seems to comply with the state’s wage and hour laws, an issue arose because the employees used an electronic timekeeping system that rounded their punched time to the nearest 10-minute allotment. For instance, if an employee clocked out for their break at 12:02 p.m. and returned at 12:25, p.m., the record would show a 30-minute break instead of a 23-minute break. This was most relevant when a nurse would take lunch at the end of their fifth hour of work. The defendants won their motions at trial on the basis that California’s wage-and-hour laws do not prohibit rounding.

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