June 2018 employment law decisions

Wage payments based on rounding off hours worked to the nearest quarter hour approved.

June 25, 2018, Second District Court of Appeal, AHMC Healthcare v. Superior Court: Employees of AHMC Healthcare sued their employer for failure to pay wages and other claims. California law requires employers to pay their employees for all time the employees are at work and subject to the employers’ control. The issue was whether an employer’s use of a payroll system that automatically rounded employee time up or down to the nearest quarter violates the law. The Second District reviewed federal courts interpreting federal law on the issue, which have approved computation of worktime by rounding to the nearest quarter of an hour provided that the rounding system will not result, over a period of time, in failure to compensate employees for all time actually worked. It then noted that California’s wage laws are patterned on federal laws and California courts may look to federal court decisions for guidance. The appellate court pointed to two recent federal decisions where a slight majority of employees losing time over a defined period was not sufficient to invalidate an otherwise neutral rounding practice. The Second District concluded that the payroll system did not violate the law because it was neutral on its face (i.e., applied to all employees) and in practice (at one location, a minority of employees lost time but AHMC compensated employees as a whole for 1,378 hours not worked; at a second location, a slight majority of employees lost time but AHMC compensated employees as a whole for 3,875 hours not worked).

Trial court erred by excluding testimony regarding text messages and “me too” evidence in harassment case.

June 21, 2018, Fourth District Court of Appeal, Natasha Meeks v. Autozone, Inc.: Ms. Meeks sued Autozone and one of its employees for sexual harassment. The case went to trial and the jury found in favor of the defendants. On appeal, Ms. Meeks challenged rulings by the trial court excluding evidence from the trial. One ruling concerned text messages from the alleged harasser sent to Ms. Meeks that were of a sexual nature. Because neither Ms. Meeks nor the alleged harasser had possession of the messages, the trial court excluded testimony at trial regarding the specific content of the messages, including words and pictures. The Fourth District rejected the trial court’s justification for its ruling on grounds of fairness because Ms. Meeks’s memory of the content of the messages was not speculation. Furthermore, the alleged harasser could dispute Ms. Meeks’s testimony regarding the specific content by testifying based on his memory. Finally, evidence of the words and pictures was not subject to the hearsay rule because it would not be offered for the truth of the content, but rather to show that the alleged harasser sent the messages. A second ruling excluded evidence concerning sexual harassment of other employees by the alleged harasser (“me to” evidence). The Fourth District concluded that the trial court’s ruling reflected a misunderstanding of the law which allows for admission of this type of evidence.

Administrative decision to uphold termination precludes civil case for discrimination and harassment.

June 21, 2018, Fourth District Court of Appeal, Carol Wassmann v. South Orange County Community College District: Ms. Wassmann sued the District for discrimination (age and race) and harassment. The trial court dismissed the case (summary judgment) on grounds an administrative proceeding provided by the District that upheld Ms. Wassmann’s termination precluded the civil case. On appeal, the Fourth District agreed that the discrimination and harassment claims were barred by the adverse administrative decision. The proceeding was sufficiently judicial in character (e.g., a hearing before an administrative law judge) and Ms. Wassmann could have objected to her proposed termination on grounds of discrimination. Because Ms. Wassman was unsuccessful in getting the administrative decision reversed (writ proceeding) she could not pursue her claims in court.

Dismissal of discrimination, harassment, and retaliation case upheld.

June 11, 2018, Ninth District Court of Appeals, Patricia Campbell v. State of Hawaii Department of Education: Ms. Campbell worked as a high school teacher. She sued her employer claiming discriminatory treatment, hostile work environment, and retaliation for complaining of harassment. The trial court dismissed the case (summary judgment). On appeal, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal of the discrimination claim on grounds there was no evidence that she was subjected to an adverse action. Ms. Campbell pointed to the Department’s loss of a performance evaluation but she did not identify any evidence to show that the loss could have materially affected the terms or conditions of her employment. In addition, the appellate court rejected Ms. Campbell’s assertion that the Department’s decision to investigate her was an adverse action because the Department allowed her to continue to teach without any changes both during and after the investigation despite findings of misconduct. Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit concluded that the Department’s denial of Ms. Campbell’s request to transfer to another school was not an adverse action because the evidence did not support a finding that she had a right to a transfer because she failed to go through the proper procedures. Finally, the court of appeals affirmed the dismissal of the discrimination claim on grounds that Ms. Campbell did not present any evidence to show that similarly-situated employees were treated more favorably. As for the hostile work environment claim, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the dismissal because the evidence showed the Department took prompt corrective measures regarding the alleged student conduct directed at Ms. Campbell by investigating Ms. Campbell’s complaints and disciplining the students it found to have engaged in misconduct. With respect to the retaliation claim, the appellate court concluded that the investigation could be an adverse action under the broader standard for retaliation claims. Nevertheless, it affirmed the dismissal on grounds there was no evidence to show that the Department’s stated reason for the investigation—receipt of multiple allegations of misconduct—was a pretext for retaliation.

Release of worker’s compensation claim did not also release discrimination claims.

June 8, 2018, Fourth District Court of Appeal, Adrian Camacho v. Target Corporation: Mr. Camacho filed a case against his employer for discrimination, harassment, failure to prevent harassment and discrimination, retaliation, and related other claims. Mr. Camacho also filed a claim for worker’s compensation benefits. The trial court dismissed the discrimination case on grounds language in a compromise and release agreement form used to settle the worker’s compensation action constituted a release of the discrimination claims. On appeal, the Fourth District reviewed the established rule that discrimination claims are not subject to the worker’s compensation system and may be pursued as civil actions. Target contended that language in an addendum to the form releasing “any other claims for reimbursement, benefits, damages, or relief of whatever nature” resulted in Mr. Camacho releasing his discrimination claims. The appellate court disagreed. There was no language in the form or addendum referring to claims outside of the worker’s compensation system. When the form and addendum were considered as a whole, the language upon which Target relied did not satisfy the “clear and non-technical language” requirement for releasing claims beyond worker’s compensation.

Posted by deanroyerlaw