Adverse action

December 2019 and January 2020 employment law decisions

The time to file an administrative discrimination claim can be extended by the filing of a workers’ compensation claim; and the filing deadline period starts at the end of ongoing discriminatory conduct or with a constructive termination.

January 28, 2020, First District Court of Appeal, Jay Brome v. California Highway Patrol: Mr. Brome’s claims for harassment and sexual orientation discrimination were not barred by the statute of limitations because the one-year period to file with the Department of Fair Employment and Housing was tolled while a workers’ compensation claim was pending; a jury could conclude that there was harassment that continued to within the limitations period extended by the tolling; and a jury could conclude that Mr. Brome was constructively terminated when he resigned less than one year before he filed with the Department.

Employees’ do not prevail on sexual harassment claims.

January 22, 2020, Second District Court of Appeal, Tamika Schmidt v. Superior Court: Court verdict finding no sexual harassment against two court employees is affirmed because the court properly applied the applicable law and did not exhibit bias amounting to a due process violation.

Unionized federal employees may only bring discrimination claims through either their union’s grievance procedure or their agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity office.

January 16, 2020, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Garry Heimrich v. United States Department of the Army: Mr. Heimrich could not pursue a wrongful termination claim before his agency’s Equal Employment Opportunity office because he previously raised the same matter in a union grievance: in both instances the underlying action was premised on a termination motivated by race, retaliation, and disability.

Employers cannot use acronyms in wage statements and PAGA claims need only cite the applicable Labor Code section.

December 26, 2019, Third District Court of Appeal, Mohammed Noori v. Countrywide Payroll & HR Solutions, Inc.: Mr. Noori asserted a valid claim for failure to provide a proper itemized wage statement because the employer’s name was indicated only by an acronym; and a valid claim under the Private Attorneys General Act of 2004 (PAGA) by citing the Labor Code section (as opposed to the specific subdivision) that was allegedly violated; but his failure to maintain wage statements claim failed because the employer’s failure to state its name in the statements was not an actionable injury.

State defendants cannot avoid liability for claims by removing cases to federal court.

December 23, 2019, Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, Donald Walden, Jr. v. State of Nevada: A State that removes a case to federal court waives its immunity from suit on all federal-law claims in the case, including the Fair Labor Standards Act claim in this case.

Fourth District claims no adverse action based on rejection of accommodation requests despite statutory and case law authority to the contrary; and affirms dismissal of interactive process and reasonable accommodation claims on grounds the employee did not identify his particular disability despite case law emphasizing the discussion of limitations resulting from the disability.

December 19, 2019, Fourth District Court of Appeal, John Doe v. Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation: Dismissal (summary judgment) of Mr. Doe’s disability discrimination, retaliation, and harassment claims was affirmed because criticism of Mr. Doe’s work, ordering a wellness check when Mr. Doe was out sick, suspecting Mr. Doe of bringing a cell phone to work, and assigning Mr. Doe as primary crisis person on the day he had a union meeting did not amount to an adverse employment action. The Fourth District further affirmed the dismissal on grounds that no court had ever held a failure to accommodate a disability is an adverse employment action, despite a 2002 case (Bagatti v. Department of Rehabilitation (2002) 97 Cal.App.4th 344) that did and the statute specifically providing that failure to accommodate is an adverse action (Government Code section 12940(m)(1)). The dismissal of Mr. Doe’s interactive process and accommodation claims was affirmed on grounds Mr. Doe was responsible for the breakdown in the accommodation discussions because he did not identify his disability, despite case law providing that the focus of such discussions is on the employee’s limitations, not specific disabling conditions.

No punitive damages against public entities available under whistleblower law.

December 17, 2019, Fifth District Court of Appeal, Visalia Unified School District v. Superior Court: Award of punitive damages to employee who sued Visalia Unified School District under the whistleblower statute covering public school employees (Education Code section 44110 et seq.) was reversed based on public entity immunity to punitive damage awards.

Verdict in favor of employee of religious organization upheld under federal, but not state, law.

December 12, 2019, Sixth District Court of Appeal, Jeremiah Mathews v. Happy Valley Conference Center, Inc.: Verdict in favor of Mr. Mathews upheld with respect to his retaliation claim under federal law (Title VII) because the jury properly concluded that Happy Valley and the Community of Church, of which Happy Valley was an affiliate, were joint employers collectively employing more than 15 employees based on common ownership, closely intertwined management, interrelated operations, and evidence showing Mr. Mathews’ termination was influenced or even dictated by the Church. But the verdict in favor of Mr. Mathews with respect to his retaliation claim under state law (Fair Employment and Housing Act) was reversed because religious associations or non-profit corporations (other than hospitals and schools) are completely exempt from FEHA claims and Happy Valley did not waive this exemption.

Posted by deanroyerlaw in Employment

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 in Employment