How to Prove a Wrongful Termination Case in California

Here is a short decision by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals which serves to illustrate a couple of important legal principles regarding wrongful termination cases.

Most callers to our office are completely unaware of the at-will employment presumption, so they start from the false premise that the employer needs a reason to fire them. I explain that being fired for no reason does not make it a wrongful termination UNLESS the termination violates a public policy, like discrimination on the basis of race.

Sometimes the caller is so discouraged by that point that they say something like,

“Well then I guess employees have no rights in California, because if they can fire you for no reason, then how would you ever prove they did it out of discrimination?  No employer is ever going to say, “I’m firing you because you are black.’”

You’re right, caller, they probably won’t say that (although a surprising number of employers do say, “We’re firing you because you are pregnant.”).  But never did I say there was such a requirement. Most cases are proven with indirect evidence.

Look at the following case to see how attorneys prove wrongful termination based on discrimination.

BUT NOTE: The plaintiff here has not won yet. His case was thrown out on a motion for summary judgment, and the appeal court reversed that because there were triable issues of fact. A summary judgment motion cannot be granted if there are any material issues of fact in dispute.

ALSO NOTE: I always tell callers, as a general rule the company is not liable for discrimination if you never told the company about it. As you’ll see from the decision, the 9th Circuit did not reverse as to the retaliation claim, because the plaintiff did not report the alleged discrimination.



PHILIP LAWRENCE, Plaintiff-Appellant,

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United States Court of Appeals, Ninth Circuit.

Philip Lawrence appeals the district court’s grant of summary judgment in favor of his former employer, Turner’s Outdoorsman, Inc. (“Turner’s”), as to his claims for race discrimination and harassment, retaliatory discharge, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), Cal. Gov’t Code §§ 12940-12996. Lawrence served as Turner’s’ Loss Prevention Director from June 2002 through January 2006, when he was terminated by Turner’s’ former President, Don Small. …

Applying the burden-shifting analysis under McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973), we conclude that Lawrence presented sufficient evidence to raise a triable issue of fact as to whether Small’s decision to fire him was pretextual. In the months prior to Lawrence’s termination, Small allegedly made a series of racially charged comments deriding Lawrence and Turner’s’ only other African-American manager. Small was also the sole decision-maker involved in Lawrence’s termination. See Mondero v. Salt River Project, 400 F.3d 1207, 1213 (9th Cir. 2005). The fact that Small was the sole decision-maker involved in Lawrence’s termination is therefore highly significant. In addition, Lawrence offered sworn testimony that raises triable issues as to whether Turner’s’ stated reasons for his termination—namely, his poor work performance, and Turner’s’ need to downsize—were unworthy of credence. For example, although Turner’s’ employees testified that Lawrence failed to answer his cell phone during the day, and failed to respond to an alarm call on at least one occasion, Lawrence testified that he consistently responded to phone calls and never missed an alarm call during his tenure. Lawrence also testified that he observed Small make financial decisions inconsistent with Turner’s’ assertion that it was experiencing financial difficulties at the time of his termination. In light of the numerous disputed issues of fact present in the record, the district court erred in granting summary judgment in Turner’s’ favor as to Lawrence’s race discrimination claim. See Chuang v. University of California Davis, Board of Trustees, 225 F.3d 1115, 1127-28 (9th Cir. 2000).

Lawrence has failed to raise triable issues of fact as to his FEHA retaliation claim, however. Lawrence adduced no evidence that Small was aware that he discussed Small’s racially charged comments with Turner’s’ human resources personnel. Lawrence declined to file a formal complaint, and stated that he did not want Small to know that he found the comments offensive. There is no record evidence that his wishes were ignored. Because Lawrence adduced no evidence of a causal link between his conversation with human resources personnel and Small’s decision to terminate him, he failed to establish a prima facie case of retaliation. Cf. Hernandez v. Spacelabs Medical Inc., 343 F.3d 1107, 1113-14 (9th Cir. 2003).  The district court’s grant of summary judgment is AFFIRMED as to Lawrence’s retaliation claim, and REVERSED AND REMANDED as to Lawrence’s race discrimination and wrongful termination in violation of public policy claims.