For 32 years, Mr. Santillan worked for USA Waste of California, Inc. becoming perhaps the world’s most beloved garbage truck driver. The customers whose homes he serviced came out in droves to commend his work and he worked for 30 years receiving hardly any discipline. However, that changed when Mr. Santillan was assigned a new supervisor. After the new supervisor took over, suddenly, Mr. Santillan couldn’t do anything right and he was disciplined six times in a year and half. Nearly three years after the new supervisor took over, Mr. Santillan was fired. His employer claimed that their reason for firing him was because he had too many accidents in a year – which Mr. Santillan disputed. Then, USA Waste replaced Mr. Santillan with a driver who had much less experience and was thirteen years younger than Mr. Santillan. Mr. Santillan’s customers were outraged and came out in droves to demand that Mr. Santillan be reinstated. One family even described that their son dressed up as Mr. Santillan for Halloween because he considered Mr. Santillan “a hero.”
Mr. Santillan filed a grievance which ultimately settled. The terms of the settlement provided that Mr. Santillan would withdraw his grievance and in exchange, he would be reinstated provided that she could pass a drug test, a physical exam, a criminal background check and “e-Verify.” E-Verify is a controversial voluntary system under federal law used to check the work authorization status of employees through federal records. Mr. Santillan passed the drug test, the physical exam and the criminal background checks. He was told to report to work with documentation showing his right to work in the United States. Mr. Santillan returned to work with his driver’s license and social security card. Nonetheless, USA Waste insisted it needed a work authorization number and the expiration date. Mr. Santillan provided his identification number, but according to his employer, could not provide the expiration date. USA Waste terminated Mr. Santillan for a second time.
Mr. Santillan filed a lawsuit based on several claims including age discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. The trial court dismissed his case holding that Mr. Santillan could not state a prima facie case for discrimination and dismissed his wrongful termination claim holding that Mr. Santillan’s failure to provide the work authorization information that USA Waste demanded within three days was a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for the termination. Mr. Santillan appealed to the Ninth Circuit.
First, the Ninth Circuit reversed the trial court on the age discrimination claim. Santillan v. USA Waste of California, Inc., 2017 WL 1289971 (9th Cir.) The Court explained that Mr. Santillan had established a prima facie case based on his testimony that he was one of five older workers who was terminated under the new supervisor and the thirteen year age gap between him and his replacement. The Court also explained that because Mr. Santillan had established his prima facie case, the burden was on USA Waste to articulate a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for his termination. While normally this is an extraordinarily low burden for employers, the Ninth Circuit held that the reasons USA Waste put forth were not sufficient.
USA Waste claimed that under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (“IRCA”) required them to obtain certain documents to ensure that an employee was authorized to work. The Court explained that Mr. Santillan was exempt from the IRCA requirements because those requirements applied to new employees and Mr. Santillan was not a new employee- he was reinstated. The Court also said that Mr. Santillan was exempt from the requirements because he had been hired prior to a date specified in the law. The Court held that “an employer’s incorrect view of the law is not a legitimate reason for firing an employee.”
The Court went even further, holding that the provision of the settlement agreement that required that Mr. Santillan pass e-Verify was void as it violates the public policy of California.
The Court also held that Mr. Santillan had established a prima facie case for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and held that USA Waste had failed to articulate a legitimate non-retaliatory reason for his termination for the same reasons as in the age discrimination claim- USA Waste had relied on an incorrect interpretation of the law.
This is an important win for employees! Normally, employers are able to easily shift the burden back on employees at summary judgment by articulating any justification for terminating an employee- so long as the reason is not discriminatory or retaliatory. However, the Ninth Circuit’s decision suggests that courts should look more closely at whether an employer’s seemingly legitimate justification is actually legitimate.