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Many employers in California require employees to sign mandatory arbitration agreements before commencing employment. Despite California laws prohibiting some employers from requiring these agreements, many still require arbitration agreements. Although some of these are lawful, many contain terms that courts find to be unconscionable, or unenforceable because they do not give the employee meaningful choice. However, these agreements often have the effect of deterring employee lawsuits that have merit. Fortunately, tenacious litigants who pursue these claims often find themselves vindicated in California courts, like in a recent employment case.

Facts of the Case

An apprentice electrician brought two separate lawsuits against his employer for unfair practices. Of note, the employee signed an arbitration agreement upon hiring that subjected the employee to binding arbitration for any disputes with the employer. The arbitration agreement included, among other provisions, measures that limited discovery, waived the right to pursue class action lawsuits, and required the complaining employee to pay filing fees and other expenses.

In a previous case, the employee filed a lawsuit against his employer for disability discrimination under the Fair Employment & Housing Act (FEHA). In the FEHA case, the trial court granted the employer’s motion to compel arbitration after severing “substantively unconscionable” terms from the arbitration agreement.

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Earlier this month, an employee appealed the lower court’s decision in favor of his employer in a wrongful termination case. When the case was before the lower court, the plaintiff unsuccessfully argued that he should succeed because his employer engaged in disability discrimination. On appeal, the higher court agreed with the lower court, ruling again in favor of the company that had employed the plaintiff.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the plaintiff began working as an assembler in 1989 for a fairly large company. In 2015, the plaintiff took an extended medical leave because he was having problems with his liver. These medical issues eventually led to a liver transplant in October 2016.

The plaintiff had been unable to work for approximately 13 months. In late October 2016, the plaintiff’s employer sent him a letter informing him that his unpaid medical leave had expired many months ago, and that he had one week to return to work before the employer would assume he had resigned. The plaintiff failed to return to work, and the company terminated his employment one week later.

In November 2018, the plaintiff filed a claim for disability discrimination. He alleged that the employer failed to provide reasonable accommodation given his medical condition.

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Recently, a federal district court in California denied a plaintiff’s appeal in a racial discrimination case. The plaintiff worked for a community medical center as a microbiologist, and according to the medical center, he was fired in 2018 for violating the center’s privacy policies. The lower court denied the plaintiff’s racial discrimination claim, and the plaintiff asked the higher court to re-examine the decision. On appeal, the district court agreed with the original decision, affirming the court’s denial of the claim.

Facts of the Case

According to the opinion, the employer in this case reported that the defendant was fired because he violated the center’s well-established privacy and confidentiality policies. In a deposition, the plaintiff admitted that he copied various medical records, removed the copied records from the workplace, and copied the records onto his personal computer at home. He also emailed documents that contained protected health information to his personal email account. This violation of the employer’s policy led to his firing in 2018.

The plaintiff told a different story. According to the defendant, he faced racial discrimination while in the workplace. At one point, for example, the plaintiff’s supervisor told him, “You stubborn Indian, do your job.” The plaintiff felt as if he was treated differently due to his race, and he felt that his race was ultimately a factor in his termination.

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Courts reviewing sexual harassment claims have the potential to award plaintiffs with significant monetary compensation; however, the legal claims have to establish certain causal links in order to be successful. Recently, a California court denied a plaintiff’s appeal in her employment discrimination case, concluding that there was no causal link between the sexual harassment that the individual faced and the consequences that she suffered while on the job. Thus, even though the plaintiff had conclusively established that she was a victim of sexual harassment, her case was ultimately unsuccessful.

According to the opinion, the plaintiff sued her employer for sexual harassment, retaliation, and failure to prevent harassment and retaliation. After her claim was denied by a lower court, the plaintiff appealed and hoped that a higher court would grant her a more favorable verdict.

The plaintiff was one of only three women serving as a lead public safety dispatcher for the city in which she resided. As a SWAT team member, the plaintiff was consistently subjected to sexually explicit jokes, nudity, and simulated sexual acts. What’s more, the plaintiff felt as if she could not refuse to participate in the sexually explicit culture, given it seemed necessary for her to advance as a member of the team.

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 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.

Mandatory arbitration agreements refer to agreements that an employee must sign as a condition of employment. Employers often include these clauses in their employment contracts to hinder an employee’s ability to pursue claims in court in front of a jury.

While California’s arbitration ban (AB 51) prohibits certain California employers from requiring employees to sign arbitration agreements as a condition of employment, certain employers, like those covered by the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA), are exempt from this prohibition. However, recent decisions indicate that the FAA does not entirely preempt AB51. As such, many employers continue to enforce and attempt to uphold arbitration agreements, despite the employer’s failure to meet the terms of the agreement.

Gallo v. Wood Ranch USA, Inc.

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.

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.

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.

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