A recent Los Angeles wrongful termination verdict ( Los Angeles Superior Court Case Number BC556173 ), raises some interesting legal issues of note. Retaliatory discharge of employees because they have engaged in protected employment activity is prohibited under California law. As a recent jury verdict demonstrates, employees who are able to demonstrate evidence that their discharge or other negative job action was completed in retaliation for their protected activity may be able to recover compensatory damages. When the action was especially egregious, punitive damages may also be available. People who believe that their employers took negative job actions against them in retaliation for their engaging in certain protected activities may want to consult with a California employment law attorney about their rights.
A 58-year-old supply chain supervisor who had worked for Office Depot for 17 years took two months leave from work to recover from a neck surgery. Four days after he returned to work, he was placed on a formal performance improvement plan. Office Depot subsequently terminated him two months later. The plaintiff alleged that he had complained to human resources that his supervisor had previously told him to use performance improvement plans to get rid of two other older employees, and human resources failed to do anything about his discrimination complaints. He also stated that he had a long record of receiving prior performance evaluations that indicated that he either met or exceeded the company’s expectations. He filed a lawsuit against Office Depot, alleging wrongful termination, failure to prevent retaliation and retaliation under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act and the California Family Rights Act.
The defendant argued that its termination of the plaintiff was justified under the circumstances and was unrelated to his protected activity. It also argued that the plaintiff had previously been coached about his interpersonal skills and peer relations before being placed on a performance improvement plan. It also argued that the company’s human resources team had investigated the plaintiff’s allegations about the discriminatory actions after he had filed a complaint with human resources and that his complaint wasn’t filed until he was placed on a performance improvement plan.
The plaintiff filed his lawsuit in the Los Angeles Superior Court. The defendant responded with a motion for summary judgment. The court granted the motion with respect to a cause of action alleging harassment but denied the motion as to all of the other causes of action. The court ordered the parties to attend a mandatory settlement conference. At the conference, the plaintiff demanded $1.25 million to settle the case, and the defendant responded with an offer of $250,000. Neither party accepted. Later, the defendant asked that the parties go through private mediation, but the plaintiff refused unless Office Depot was willing to extend an offer in the seven-figure range. Since it didn’t, the parties proceeded to trial.
The triable issues in the case were whether Office Depot’s act of placing the plaintiff on a performance improvement plan just four days after he returned from neck surgery and then subsequently firing him was in retaliation for his taking leave under the state’s family leave law. The case also looked at whether or not the negative job action was in violation of the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act as retaliation for the plaintiff’s complaining about unlawful discrimination.
Under California Gov. Code § 12940(h), plaintiffs must prove by a preponderance of the evidence several things to succeed with a retaliation claim. The plaintiffs must show that they engaged in protected activities under the FEHA, and the negative job actions followed. They must also prove that their protected activities motivated the employers to take the negative job actions against them. Finally, they must prove that they suffered harm as a direct result of the retaliation.
In the man’s case, the jury found that Office Depot had engaged in his termination in retaliation for his complaints about discrimination and for taking protected leave. They also found that Office Depot had failed to prevent retaliation against the plaintiff. Finally, the jury found that punitive damages were also warranted because of the egregiousness of Office Depot’s actions.
The plaintiff’s gross verdict award was $10 million. Of that amount, $2 million was awarded for his past and future economic and noneconomic losses. The remaining $8 million was assessed against Office Depot as punitive damages.
Contact an attorney
The case demonstrates how the law against retaliation functions in California. If you have been terminated or demoted after engaging in a protected activity such as taking medical leave, you may benefit by speaking with an experienced employment law attorney in Los Angeles. A lawyer may analyze what occurred and assess the likelihood of your claim being successful. If the attorney agrees to accept representation, he or she may file a lawsuit on your behalf and try to recover the maximum amount of damages on your behalf.