Articles Posted in Retaliation

Plaintiff Thomas claimed that her employer retaliated against her because she exercised her free speech rights and spoke out on matters of public concern. Thomas v. County of Riverside, 763 F.3d 1167 (2014).

The lower court dismissed her case, characterizing her claims as “petty workplace gripes”. Ms. Thomas claimed that her employer retaliated against her by removing her from an unpaid position, removing her from a teaching assignment, and denying her a previously granted vacation.

Discussing the importance of First Amendment rights, including the fact that these rights might be chilled by the types of retaliatory actions the County of Riverside took against Ms. Thomas, the Ninth Circuit reversed the dismissal of the case, emphasizing the importance of free speech for public employees.

In good news for victims of sex harassment and retaliation, and especially for same-sex victims, Lewis v. City of Benicia, 224 Cal.App.4th 1519 (2014) reinstated many of the claims against the City of Benicia and one of its supervisors.

First, the California Court of Appeals made clear that the trial court overstepped its bounds when it dismissed a sexual harassment claim. Following the U.S. Supreme Court opinion in Oncale v. Sundowner Offshore Services, Inc., 523 U.S. 75 (1998), the court held that same-sex harassment which included sexual comments intended to humiliate the plaintiff due to his gender identity constituted sexual harassment. It reversed the lower court’s ruling that the harassing conduct was not sufficiently “severe or pervasive” to constitute sexual harassment. It found that several months of a course of conduct of gifts and lunch purchases, sexual jokes, and pornographic computer images, was sufficient to bring a claim for sexual harassment.

On the other hand, the Court of Appeals dismissed a sexual harassment claim against another supervisor whose only conduct was showing computer pornography to a group of employees once or twice, and making an occasional joke.

Sometimes courts raise the bar on sexual harassment claims too high. Whether the sexual harasser’s conduct is “severe” or “pervasive” enough to go to trial often seems to be determined by the subjective lenses of the judges. The judges’ lenses are often colored by their own life experience. Certainly whether a judge is a “he” or “she” may impact the analysis. Although here in Westendorf v. West Coast Contractors of Nevada, Inc. 712 F.3d 417 (9th Cir 2013), the three judge panel, including a female judge, all found against Ms. Westendorf’s sexual harassment claim. Judges ought to walk a mile in the shoes of the victims of this offensive conduct, and they might not be so quick to declare that the conduct isn’t severe or pervasive enough. I guess the judges weren’t as offended as I was by all the talk about breasts and orgasms.

However, the same panel of judges did understand that Ms. Westendorf’s claim for retaliatory termination should go forward, holding that there was a material fact as to whether she was fired because she complained of the crude and offensive remarks.

So, for Ms. Westendorf, the glass is half empty or half full, depending on the perspective!!

Dr. Naiel Nassar was employed by the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center as a faculty member and staff physician. Dr. Nassar, who is of Middle Eastern descent and practices Islam, claimed that one of his supervisors was biased against him on account of his ethnic heritage and religion. As a result, he resigned his faculty position, but continued working as a staff physician.

After resigning, he sent a letter complaining that the reason he resigned was due to his supervisor’s “religious, racial and cultural bias against Arabs and Muslims.” Based on this complaint, the Hospital withdrew his job offer. Dr. Nassar filed a Title VII lawsuit claiming, among other things, retaliation. The jury found for Dr. Nassar and the Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit affirmed the retaliation verdict. (The jury also found for Dr. Nassar on his discrimination/constructive termination claim. The Court of Appeals reversed on that issue. That claim was not before the Supreme Court). However, the University appealed to the Supreme Court to decide what type of causation a plaintiff must prove in a retaliation case.

In Title VII discrimination cases, a plaintiff only needs to show that his discrimination was a “motivating factor” in the decision to terminate him. The “motivating factor” standard acknowledges that even though there may be legitimate factors in deciding to take an adverse employment action against an employee, if the employee shows that discriminatory animus was one of the motivating factors, he has met his burden.

Protection from retaliation when an employee complains about or blows the whistle on sexual harassment, or other discriminatory conduct, is an important right for California employees. This right is found in the Fair Employment and Housing Act § 12940 (h).

Dr. Fitzsimons found out just how important this right was when she reported sexual harassment of employees of California Emergency Medical Physicians Medical Group (CEP), and found herself demoted. She sued, claiming retaliation.

CEP defended the case by claiming that Dr. Fitzsimons was a “partner” (one of 700 emergency physicians working for CEP and labeled as a partner) rather than an employee, entitled to the protection of FEHA. At trial, the jury found that Dr. Fitzsimons was a partner, and therefore, the trial court ruled against her.

The California Court of Appeal overturned a $2 million dollar award to a Los Angeles police officer who it was admitted was fired solely because he complained of sexual harassment. Sounds like a good case? Too good for this court panel, which turned logic on its head in finding that it was legal to fire Officer Joaquin in retaliation for his filing a sexual harassment complaint. The Court found that, even though the jury found the plaintiff to be fired because he filed this complaint, that it wasn’t illegal because an internal panel (known as the Board of “Rights”) found that his complaint was false.

In this case, Officer Joaquin filed an internal charge of sexual harassment. His statement as to what happened certainly contains evidence that would permit any jury to find that he was sexually harassed. He recited how a Sergeant sexually harassed him, asked him on a date, and after Officer Joaquin told him he was not interested, continued to pursue him by, inter alia, following him around and making inappropriate comments, such as “you look nice standing there.” Joaquin v City of Los Angles (Jan. 23, 2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 1207.

As stated above, Joaquin filed an internal complaint of sexual harassment. The Sergeant filed an internal complaint against Joaquin, and it took off from there with an Internal Affairs investigation, and a finding by a panel somewhat inappropriately labeled the “Board of Rights” (which consisted of two management level officer, who very well may have been biased and certainly weren’t outside neutrals, and one community member). The Board of Rights determined that Joaquin had fabricated his claims. Joaquin disagreed with the Board’s finding and filed a writ of mandate. The Superior Court, which heard the writ, agreed with Joaquin and ordered him reinstated. After that, Joaquin filed this action in court alleging retaliation. The jury not only found in his favor, but really found in his favor, awarding him $2 million.

Dr. Jadwin sued his employer, Kern County, in federal court, for placing him on administrative leave in retaliation for his complaints about patient care and other violations. This underlying federal case subsequently resulted in a verdict of over $500,000.00 to Dr. Jadwin.

Instead of heeding the warning of being particularly careful not to retaliate, or appear to retaliate, against an employee with a pending claim, the County of Kern threw caution to the wind and sued Dr. Jadwin in state court, claiming that the good doctor filed a false claim for $3125 in expenses. Fresno’s claim against Dr. Jadwin was assigned to mandatory arbitration where Dr. Jadwin prevailed. After a variety of inappropriate maneuvering by the County, the State Court ruled that Fresno’s claim was frivolous and brought to harass Dr. Jadwin.

The Court of Appeals, in County of Kern v Jadwin (July 5, 2011) — C.A. 4th — –, 2011 WL 2611819, affirmed the finding by the trial court that the case was frivolous and upheld the trial court’s award of $50,000.00 in attorney’s fees. The Court of Appeals agreed with the lower court that the facts “‘paint a picture . . .’ of a lawsuit filed and maintained for the purpose of harassing Jadwin.”

Mr. Kasten was fired by Saint-Gobain because he complained that the company prevented its workers from being paid for the time they spent “donning and doffing” (putting on required protective gear). He claimed that the location of the company’s time clocks caused this problem. Kasten v. Saint-Gobain Performance Plastic Corp., __ U.S. __ (March 22, 2011).

The Fair Labor Standards Act prohibits employers from discharging “any employee because such employee has filed any complaint” asserting a violation of the Act. 29 U.S.C. Section 215(a)(3). This case turned solely upon the Supreme Court’s holding that the phrase “filed any complaint” includes the making of an oral complaint, here to Saint-Gobain’s officials.

The Court held that the “purpose and context” of the anti-retaliation provision led it to this interpretation. It noted that very real problems could occur if the provision did not protect those who complained orally: it could prevent government agencies from using hotlines; it could discourage the use of informal workplace grievance procedures; and it could make it difficult for workers who are less educated to complain. This led the Court to adopt a broad interpretation of the statute.

In an important case, Thompson v. North American Stainless, LP, 131 S.Ct. 863 (January 24, 2011), the US Supreme Court put an end to retaliation against an employee who takes protected activity by retaliating against someone “closely” associated with her. It did so in order to protect the spirit of Title VII’s anti-retaliation provision.

In this case, Ms. Regalado, an employee of defendant North American Stainless, filed a charge of sex discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). Three weeks later, the defendant fired her fiancé, plaintiff Thompson. Thompson alleges that his firing was in retaliation for his fianceé’s filing of her charge of discrimination.

The US Supreme Court upheld Thompson’s charge, indicating that, if true, his firing violated the anti-retaliation provisions of Title VII. Relying on the spirit of the anti-retaliation provision, the Court held that the provision was intended to protect against employment actions that “….might have dissuaded a reasonable worker from making or supporting a charge of discrimination”, quoting Burlington Northern & Santa Fe Railway v. White, 548 US 53 (2006). The Court went on to indicate that not all third parties will be protected by this ruling, noting that a close family member will be treated differently than a mere acquaintance.