Articles Posted in Wrongful Termination

In a recent case, the Second District Court of Appeals Division 5 in California issued an opinion in an appeal involving a discharge dispute between an employer and an employee. The plaintiff is a former plant manager for the defendant, FlashCo, a manufacturer of prefabricated roof flashings. The plaintiff contends that he was discharged from his employment by the defendants in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), the Moore-Brown-Roberti Family Rights Act, also known as the California Family Rights Act (CFRA), and public policy. In total, the plaintiff set forth nine causes of action, six for violations of the FEHA, two for violations of the CFRA, one for interference, one for retaliation, and one for violations of public policy. The defendant filed a motion for summary judgment, and the trial court granted the motion, ruling against the plaintiff.

Facts of the Case

As an employee of FlashCo, the plaintiff was hired in 2010 as a production worker. In March 2016, the plaintiff was then hired as a plant manager. During the trial, the plaintiff’s former supervisor testified that the plaintiff was “over his head” in the plant manager role, stating that he never developed into a competent plant manager. According to further testimony from the trial, the plaintiff’s supervisors stated that in 2016 and 2017, the plant managed by the plaintiff was not reaching production levels expected of a plant of that level. In February 2018, the plaintiff experienced neck and back injuries in an outside automobile accident. By April 2018, the plaintiff was advised that “the sales team was concerned about [his] plant performance” and around that time, he was sent a performance improvement plan (PIP). The plaintiff felt that the PIP set unrealistic expectations. Later that day, the plaintiff had a discussion with his manager and was given three options, (1) abide by the PIP, (2) accept a demotion to operations supervisor, or (3) voluntarily resign and receive a $10,000 payment from the company.

The plaintiff resigned and accepted the payment several days later. In March 2020, the plaintiff commenced his action by filing a complaint against the defendant, setting forth nine total causes of action, with six addressing violations of the FEHA, two addressing violations of the CFRA, one for interference, one for retaliation, and one addressing violations of public policy. The trial court dismissed the plaintiff’s claims on a motion for summary judgment from the defendant.

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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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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.

For California employees seeking job security, the prospect of an unexpected termination, especially if done so without cause, understandably produces fear and anxiety. In instances where an employee is terminated soon after a long-distance, interstate, or even international transfer, the consequences of the termination can be extreme. The California Court of Appeals recently heard an appeal in a case filed by a former employee of the defendant, who was terminated without cause less than one year after he was transferred from California to Singapore, a small Southeast Asian nation.

According to the facts discussed in the appellate opinion, the plaintiff was offered an executive position with the defendant, a software company, in May 2015. While the defendant conducted business in California, the position offered to the plaintiff required relocation to Singapore. The plaintiff accepted the offer and relocation package on May 22, 2015. The offer contained provisions detailing the circumstances under which the plaintiff’s employment could be terminated.

Nearly one year after the plaintiff accepted the offer and moved to Singapore to assume the new position, his employment was terminated. The defendant notified the plaintiff of the termination one month before his departure, and otherwise complied with the conditions in the employment contract/relocation agreement. The letter notifying the plaintiff of his termination did not note any cause or reason for the decision. The plaintiff filed multiple claims against the defendant in California court, alleging that the defendant committed fraud in misrepresenting the details surrounding the job and relocation prior to the plaintiff’s acceptance of the offer. Additionally, the plaintiff alleged that he was unlawfully terminated in violation of state law and his employment contract.

Recently, a national news source reported a finding by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) regarding Tesla’s illegal termination of a California employee. The findings affirmed a 2019 ruling that found that Tesla illegally threatened workers if they engaged in union activities. The employee, in this case, was organizing union participation by distributing pamphlets in the company’s California parking lot. Tesla fired the employee, attributing the termination to the employee’s posting of employees’ profiles on social media. About seven months after the termination, Elon Musk tweeted a statement that said, “why pay union dues & give up stock options for nothing?”

An NLRB administrative judge found that the termination was in retaliation for the employee engaging in union activities. Further, the judge ruled that the company engaged in employment law violations when it issued warnings to another worker for sending screenshots and sending them to the employee. Finally, the board ruled that Tesla’s confidentiality agreement contains an illegal provision that prohibits employees from speaking with the media without the company’s permission. The NLRB ruling requires Tesla to amend the provision in their confidentiality documents. Tesla has not issued a comment on the recent Board findings.

Certain federal and state laws protect California employees in organizing and joining a union. Unions are a critical way for employees to ensure that their employer negotiates in good faith over terms and conditions of employment, including work hours, and compensation. The National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) protects certain California employees from engaging in unionizing activities. Some protected activities include allowing employees to self-organize, form, join, or assist labor organizations, engage in collective bargaining agreements, and other related activities.

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