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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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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.

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.

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