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Trials for employment discrimination cases can be emotionally charged environments, and respecting the decision-makers in any court setting can make or break a party’s case. In a recent sexual harassment suit coming out of a California court, the defendant unsuccessfully appealed several rulings from the lower court that he claimed prevented him from having a fair trial. The court of appeals disagreed, affirming the defendant’s original verdict.

The facts of the case indicate that the defendant was accused of sexually harassing one of his female employees, repeatedly making obscene comments and touching her in inappropriate ways. After several years of this behavior, the plaintiff brought the defendant to court, and just before the trial began, the defendant fired the attorneys that were working on his case.

Without an attorney, the defendant elected to represent himself at trial, deciding he did not need counsel in order to get his point across. During the trial itself, the defendant did not obey any of the court’s rules and regulations. He shouted at prospective jurors, made faces during the plaintiff’s testimony, yelled at the judge, threatened the defendant’s lawyer, and routinely interrupted witnesses while they were speaking.

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.

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.

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.

Many employers, especially large corporations with a public image, may be more concerned about the optics of workplace discrimination and harassment claims than the cost of paying a complainant the requested amount of damages. Prior to 2019, California employers were permitted to require a sexual harassment or discrimination complainant to accept confidentiality and non-disparagement agreements as part of a settlement to resolve the employee’s claims. Many employers would offer generous settlements to aggrieved employees that were conditioned upon the employee agreeing to be silent in public about their claim.

In 2019, the California legislature passed a law (signed by Governor Newsom), commonly known as the “Silence No More Act.” this legislation forbade employers from requiring a confidentiality or non-disparagement clause as part of the settlement of an employee’s claim of harassment or discrimination based upon sex. The passage of this law prevented employers from essentially buying the silence of sexual harassment and discrimination victims, instead of allowing them to share their stories and warn others about potentially harmful and hostile work environments.

A recently published review of California employment law changes in 2021 discusses how the Silence No More Act provisions have been extended to protect other classes of people complaining of workplace discrimination or harassment. The new legislation states that an employer may not require silence from an employee/complainant who alleges any type of workplace discrimination, harassment, or retaliation. The passage of this new law expands the rights of aggrieved California employees and prevents employers from refusing to pay settlement amounts after a former employee is caught discussing their experiences in public or with the media.

Professional and trade unions are generally tasked with protecting the rights of their members and maximizing employee negotiating power with owners and management by presenting a united front. Usually, a union will enter into what is known as a “collective bargaining agreement” with an employer. The CBA will set rules that both employees and employers must abide by concerning issues such as wages, benefits, workers’ compensation, health insurance, and workplace breaks. Furthermore, CBAs often set a procedure for employees to make grievances against their employers. Unions’ negotiation of CBAs generally serve to benefit employees because the union is able to negotiate better terms for the workplace than employees could on their own. Individually, some terms of a CBA may not benefit employees. The California Court of Appeals recently addressed a claim by an employee in which he was attempting to sidestep the grievance procedures outlined in the CBA that he had agreed to.

The plaintiff in the recently decided case was a carpenter who was previously employed by the defendant. The plaintiff’s employment was conditioned upon agreeing to CBAs that were negotiated by two unions that the plaintiff was a member of. The CBAs in question mandated that any grievances employees had related to wage theft would be handled through binding arbitration, instead of in the state courts. The plaintiff made a claim in state court that the defendant had violated several employment laws and was not paying the plaintiff for work that had been done. The defendant responded to the plaintiff’s state court claims by attempting to enforce the arbitration agreement that was part of the CBAs. The state court granted the defendant’s motion and dismissed the case, leading the plaintiff to appeal the decision to the California Court of Appeals.

On appeal, the high court agreed with the lower court’s reasoning, holding that the grievance procedures outlined in the CBAs were clear and unambiguous and that the plaintiff had no right to ignore the CBAs. The court reasoned that a CBA should be evaluated just as any other contract would be and that the plaintiff understood and agreed to the CBA, and benefited from some of the provisions contained within it. As a result of the appellate findings and ruling, the plaintiff will be forced to pursue his claims at arbitration as stated in the CBAs.

Many corporations and other California employers with large numbers of employees like to use arbitration agreements with their employees to streamline the process of addressing employment law-related issues. At first glance, arbitration agreements offer both employees and employers a simplified process to address grievances between the parties. In practice, however, arbitration agreements function to put employees at a disadvantage when compared to other acceptable ways of addressing complaints and disputes. The California Court of Appeals recently addressed a claim by an employee that the arbitration process they agreed to was unfair and should not be enforced.

The plaintiff in the recently decided appeal had been an employee of the defendant, a large communications company. As a condition of her employment with the defendant, the plaintiff was required to enter into an arbitration agreement to resolve any disputes. The agreement included provisions that would make it more difficult for employees to succeed at making claims against the defendant. The plaintiff was terminated from employment with the defendant less than one year after starting the job, and she alleged that the termination was unlawful. The plaintiff made several claims in state court under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, alleging unlawful termination.

In response to the plaintiff’s lawsuit, the defendant attempted to enforce the arbitration agreement, remove the plaintiff’s claims from state court, and collect attorneys’ fees from her for filing the suit in the first place. The plaintiff responded that the arbitration clause was unconscionable and against public policy because employees were essentially forced to give up their legal rights to a fair process in order to work for the defendant. The California state court ultimately agreed with the plaintiff, finding that the defendant was violating public policy by forcing their employees to adhere to an unfair arbitration agreement. The defendant appealed the ruling to the state Court of Appeals, where the lower court’s ruling and reasoning was affirmed. Specifically, the court ruled that several provisions of the arbitration agreement were unconscionable and unenforceable, and as a result, the plaintiff’s claim shall proceed in the state court.

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.

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