Articles Posted in Retaliation

Employment discrimination and harassment based on membership in a protected class are patently unacceptable in California. Victims of discrimination and harassment are often hesitant to report what has occurred at their workplace for fear of retaliation. Federal and California lawmakers understand this dynamic and have worked to design a legal framework for addressing harassment and discrimination claims while protecting the complaining victim. When an aggrieved employee claims harassment and retaliation, the amounts awarded by the judge or jury are commonly greater for the retaliation portion of the claim. A California woman was recently awarded over $600,000 from her former employer for retaliating against her after she complained of harassment.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff was an employee of the California Department of Transportation. At some point in 2009, the plaintiff receive electronic communications that were not intended for her and contained sexually explicit and offensive material. The plaintiff reported the situation to the human resources department of the defendant. According to the plaintiff, she was treated differently after reporting the messages and ultimately fired from her post. The plaintiff alleged in a lawsuit that her termination was unlawful, and the result of illegal retaliation by the defendant.

After a trial lasting over three weeks, the jury agreed that the plaintiff was a victim of retaliation. Notably, the plaintiff’s unlawful termination claim failed, but the retaliation claims stuck and resulted in an award of over $600,000 to the plaintiff. This demonstrates that an employer’s response to a complaint can be more harmful to them than the initial incident that led to the complaint. Aggrieved employees who may be victims of illegal harassment or discrimination should not fear complaining to their superiors about the treatment, as the law protects them if they are punished for making a report.

Since the dawn of the Progressive Era in the early 20th Century, employers have resisted government-imposed labor protections for their employees. Employers often rely on employees’ lack of knowledge of the law to prevent them from asserting or even inquiring into their rights. In addition to keeping workers ignorant of labor protections, employers have successfully kept workers afraid of asserting their rights by using retaliatory tactics against employees who seem to be “stirring the pot.” Such retaliation is illegal, as both Federal and California employment laws protect workers from retaliation.

What Exactly is Retaliation?

According to the United States Department of Labor, retaliation occurs if an employer, manager, supervisor, or administrator fires an employee or takes any other type of adverse action against an employee for engaging in protected activity by asserting their labor rights. In addition to termination of the employee, other adverse actions amounting to retaliation could include any action which would discourage a reasonable employee from discussing a potential violation or engaging in other related protected activity. Some examples of retaliation may include firing an employee for discussing overtime requirements with peers or assigning an employee to undesirable duties as a result of their claiming protected medical leave.

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.

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