Articles Posted in Employment Discrimination

The California Fair Employment and Housing Act provides greater protections to employees than federal law. But bringing a lawsuit under the Act for discrimination or wrongful termination can still be a difficult and arduous process for employees. Employees with disabilities who believe they are being wrongfully discriminated against must prove they have a disability, were otherwise qualified for a position, suffered an adverse employment action, and the employer acted with a discriminatory motive. In a recent California appellate court case, one employee failed to meet this burden.

Facts of the Case

The plaintiff was employed as a nurse in the defendant’s hospital in California. The employee claimed that the defendant was discriminating against her due to a disability and failing to provide accommodations for her disability in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The employee underwent carpal tunnel surgery and was placed on modified duty and took several leaves of absence for surgery and recovery. The employee alleged her supervisors passed her over for a promotion after these absences, promoting a less-qualified nurse in her place.

The employee was then transferred to another hospital, where a disputed incident led to the employee failing her probationary period at that hospital. At this point, she attempted to transfer back but was allegedly falsely told her position had been filled. She then took a leave of absence due to severe stress from her unstable work status. She returned to work at the original hospital, where new supervisors were in place. The employee accused these supervisors of forcing her to undergo evaluations of competency by unqualified employees, later firing her because of these sham evaluations. Upon her return, her pay was also reduced and her work schedule was changed. After termination, the employee filed suit, alleging discrimination, failure to follow certain administrative procedures, retaliation, and wrongful termination.

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Employment-related lawsuits in California require plaintiffs to comply with many procedural requirements to pursue a claim successfully. If an employee is being mistreated in the workplace, several potential claims against the employer could be pursued. Although an employee may have two or more valid claims against their former employer, each claim needs to be pled and argued in accordance with the procedural requirements for each cause of action. The California Court of Appeals recently affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of ten employment-related claims filed by a former employee of the defendant.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff began working for the defendant, a medical supply company, in December of 2013. According to the plaintiff’s complaint, during 2015 and early 2016, she began to experience harassment and discrimination from her supervisor. The plaintiff claimed that the supervisor, who was a woman, was discriminating against the plaintiff, also a woman, because of her gender. In May of 2016, the plaintiff reached out to the defendant’s human resources department to report that she was suffering health problems as a result of the mistreatment by her supervisor. Before the plaintiff’s complaint was addressed by human resources, she was terminated from her job, ostensibly because of her failure to accurately keep records as required by her job description.

The plaintiff filed a 10-count cause of action against the defendant after her termination, alleging gender discrimination, harassment, retaliation, unlawful termination, and other employment-related claims. The defendant responded that the plaintiff was an at-will employee and was terminated for her failure to abide by the record-keeping requirements of the job. The trial court addressed the plaintiff’s arguments in turn and summarily rejected them all as unsupported by the evidence. The plaintiff appealed the ruling to the state court of appeals, where the lower judgment was upheld. The appellate court ruled that most of the plaintiff’s arguments were waived on appeal because the plaintiff’s appellate brief was not sufficient to allow the court to consider the substantive merit of the claims.

The procedures for successfully pursuing an employment law claim in California can be archaic and confusing. If an employee has been treated illegally by their employer but fails to properly follow the procedure to pursue a claim, they most likely will be left without any relief, even if the facts surrounding the employee’s claim were clearly on the employee’s side. The California Court of Appeals recently affirmed a lower court’s dismissal of an employment discrimination claim because the case was not filed until after the statutory deadline for making such a claim.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case is a woman who worked as a special education assistant for the Los Angeles Unified School District (The defendant) for 15 years between 2000 and 2015. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff was injured on the job in 2015, made a workers’ compensation claim, and took medical leave to address her injuries. In 2017, the plaintiff was cleared by her doctor to return to work with modified duties; however, the defendant determined that she was unable to perform her prior job and offered her a lower-paying position with lighter duties, which the plaintiff refused.

The plaintiff claimed with the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH), alleging that she was discriminated against for her disability and retaliated against for making a workers’ compensation claim. Specifically, the plaintiff alleged that the defendant failed to make reasonable accommodations for her to return to her original position after she partially recovered from her injuries. On January 23, 2018, the California DFEH issued her a “right to sue” letter, which instructed her that she could file her claims in state court within one year of the date the letter was issued. Three hundred sixty-six days later, one day after the expiration of the right to sue, the plaintiff filed a claim in state court.

Employment discrimination is illegal under state and federal law. Once an employee makes it known that they are experiencing any type of disability, public and private employers are required by law to provide reasonable accommodation for the employee. Employees are entitled to any accommodation that would not produce undue hardship to the employer’s operation. Disabled employees who are refused reasonable accommodation for their disability and forced to retire may be entitled to take legal action against their former employer. These are known as “failure to accommodate” claims. The California Court of Appeals recently rejected a woman’s claim against the City of Sacramento that alleged her retirement was the result of the city’s refusal to reasonably accommodate her disability.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case is a woman who was employed by the City of Sacramento for approximately 20 years. Around 2014, the plaintiff became disabled and took several leaves of absence from her job to have treatment on her ankle. The plaintiff was allotted six months of medical leave, after which she would need to return to work in order to keep priority for her position. After having surgery on her ankle, the plaintiff was not cleared to return to work by the doctor within the six-month medical leave period. Because she wanted to maintain her insurance coverage, the plaintiff decided to retire from her job.

After her retirement, the plaintiff sued the city for disability discrimination, claiming that the city did not make reasonable accommodations for her to continue her job working with her disability. The city responded that they offered the plaintiff 6 months of medical leave as an accommodation for her disability. Furthermore, the city responded that the plaintiff could have requested modified work duties instead of seeking retirement. A jury heard the plaintiff’s claim and sided with the defendant, finding that while the plaintiff could have continued her job with reasonable accommodation, the defendant did not refuse to offer such accommodation, and was not liable for disability discrimination as a result.

Addressing issues with employment law in California can be a confusing and daunting task. Municipal, state and federal laws can have a bearing on a potential case, and civil, administrative, and even criminal laws and procedures may dictate what relief a plaintiff is entitled to. Usually, employees who have suffered unfair treatment or discrimination in the workplace are required to seek an administrative remedy before pursuing a civil claim in the state or federal court. A plaintiff’s failure to timely and adequately pursue an administrative remedy could prevent them from obtaining relief through a civil suit. The California Court of Appeals recently addressed an appeal filed by a woman whose workplace discrimination lawsuit had been dismissed for failing to properly seek an administrative remedy before filing the civil lawsuit.

In the recently decided case, the plaintiff is a woman who had been employed by the defendant, the City of San Francisco, for over 15 years when she developed a vision problem. According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff’s vision problem resulted from a disability that developed in response to excessive computer use through the plaintiff’s career with the city. Upon the advice of her medical providers, the plaintiff requested to be reassigned to a job with limited computer use as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. After several months without a new work assignment, the plaintiff retired on July 30, 2016.

After leaving her post, the plaintiff sought administrative relief for her discrimination claim through the California Department of Fair Employment and Housing. Although she started the complaint process in February of 2016, the DFEH did not prepare a complaint for her to sign and submit until July 2, 2017. After completing the regulatory process through the DFEH, the plaintiff filed a civil claim in state court against the defendant, alleging discrimination and failure to accommodate her disability.

When California employment law claims proceed through trial and are put before a jury, the initial verdict amounts may be subject to modification by the judge based on legal requirements. Often, a jury will agree to award a plaintiff an amount that is prohibited by law. Trial courts have the discretion to reduce jury awards that are inconsistent with the law. The California Court of Appeals recently addressed a case where the trial court had reduced the jury’s award for attorney’s fees to a plaintiff by nearly $700,000, and the plaintiff appealed the reduction.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff in the recently decided case was a Black man over 50 who was employed by the defendant, an auto parts store. The plaintiff alleged in his complaint that he was a victim of workplace discrimination and harassment based on his race and age. The plaintiff also claimed that the defendant retaliated against him for making in-house complaints about how he was being treated.

The claims went to trial, after which a jury decided that the plaintiff made a valid claim for retaliation, although the other claims were not accepted by the jury. As part of the jury’s verdict, the plaintiff was awarded nearly $900,000 in attorney’s fees for pursuing the valid claim. After the verdict was awarded, the trial judge reduced the attorney fee award by about $700,000, ruling that only the portion of the fees attributable to the retaliation claim should be awarded to the plaintiff and not the fees incurred pursuing the two other claims.

The United States Supreme Court is set to address whether emotional distress damages are available to those who prove disability discrimination under federal law. Disability discrimination can impact a person and their family in a myriad of ways. While a financial loss is the most apparent, emotional distress can have a life-changing impact on a person’s livelihood. California state and federal law prohibit discrimination based on a person’s disability in employment, government programs, private and non-profit businesses, commercial facilities, transportation, and telecommunications. Those who experience discrimination in these settings can hold the violating party liable for their damages. However, plaintiffs often encounter challenges in establishing emotional distress damages.

Emotional distress damages include a variety of harms, including:

  • Psychiatric conditions such as anxiety and depression;

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.

Recently the Court of Appeals issued a decision in a California employment discrimination case involving several claims, including pregnancy-related and sex discrimination. The plaintiff asserts that her employer, a dental group, terminated her position because she attempted to become pregnant. In response, the defendant argued that the decision did not stem from discrimination. Instead, the defendant contended that the company was undergoing a reorganization; the plaintiff lost her job because her performance scores put her at the bottom of the metric they used to rate employee performance.

Under California law, courts use the federal burden-shifting test for evaluating wrongful discharge lawsuits. In these cases, plaintiffs must show that the employer’s actions were more likely than not based on a prohibited discriminatory criterion. If the plaintiff meets this burden, a presumption of discrimination arises, and the employer must establish a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for their action. If the employer meets this burden, the burden shifts back onto the employee to establish “substantial evidence” that the defendant’s nondiscriminatory reason was pre-textual or that the employer acted with animus.

Under this framework, an employee’s evidence is subject to scrutiny, and their subjective belief does not create a genuine issue of material fact. Instead, the proffered evidence must establish a causal link between the employer’s motivation and termination. Moreover, circumstantial evidence of discrimination must be “substantial” and specific.”

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