Author Archives: Aaron Morris

Catholic Church pays $4 million to settle wrongful termination lawsuit of Vallejo coach

The Catholic Church in Sacramento has agreed to pay $4 million to settle a former high school football coach’s wrongful termination lawsuit.

Source: abc7news.com

This was a tragic case involving a high school football coach who was fired for doing the right thing.

The coach was a retired police officer, who decided to coach the football for the local Catholic High School. When he arrived, he soon heard tales of some very inappropriate hazing rituals involving the players. When he reported the conduct, the school blamed him for letting it happen and fired him on that basis.

Here is where things get interesting. He sued for wrongful termination, and a Sacramento jury awarded him $900,000 in compensatory damages, even though he had found a better job that paid more.

But then came the punitive damages phase of the trial. Before the case was put to the jury to decide on punitive damages, the Catholic church agreed to settle for the original $900,000 plus $4 million in punitive damages. No doubt the Catholic church wanted to cut its losses and avoid the possibility of a much larger punitive damages award. However, based on the comments of the jurors, it appears any punitive damages would have been far less.

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Wrongful Termination — Former Teacher Awarded $3.5 Million

What a difference being a government employee makes. Most workers are at-will employees and can be terminated without cause on the whim of the employer, but teachers can only be terminated for cause. In the case of Lyndsey Wilcox v. Newark Valley Central School District, that distinction led to a huge verdict.

A jury on Wednesday awarded close to $3.5 million in damages to Wilcox, who alleged she was fired without cause. Wilcox was dating another teacher when it was discovered that he was acting inappropriately toward female students. He was ultimately convicted of sex offenses and sentenced to 30 years in prison. Wilcox successfully argued that she was only terminated for the sins of her boyfriend.

The jury deliberated for about three hours before returning with a verdict awarding Wilcox $351,990 for lost wages and $2.1 million for future lost earnings and $1 million for emotional distress.

Hostile Work Environment — The Law Does Not Promise a Utopian Workplace

I don’t often set forth an entire opinion, but the following case out of the Third Circuit provides a very good summary of what constitutes a “hostile work environment”, while at the same time demonstrating how the facts of a case are dissected and examined.  If you are contemplating a wrongful termination action in general or a hostile work environment action in particular, this case is well worth reading.

The takeaways are:  (1) a mean boss does not (necessarily) a hostile work environment make, and (2) if individual acts are not “hostile”, then even 14 of those acts will not create a hostile work environment.

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Judge Upholds Termination Because “Lactation is not Pregnancy”

A judge in Houston has ruled in favor of an employer who allegedly fired a woman who wanted to use the bathroom to breast-pump.

Case facts are never black and white, and there are always complicating factors. Here, there was apparently some issue as to whether the employee abandoned her job, but the ruling of the judge is still hard to fathom.

The EEOC filed a complaint on behalf of Donnicia Venters against debt collection agency Houston Funding. Venters alleged that the company violated Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. Since only women can currently get pregnant, Title VII makes it illegal to discriminate “because of pregnancy, childbirth, or a medical condition related to pregnancy or childbirth” since by definition those issues would only arise as to women.rental mobil jakarta

However, Title VII doesn’t say anything about lactation, so Judge Lynn Hughes found that the lawsuit was not recognized under Title VII and dismissed the lawsuit. Judge Hughes ruled that “firing someone because of lactation or breast-pumping is not sex discrimination.”

The ruling is, of course, utter nonsense. Lactation occurs because of childbirth, and if a mother cannot pump or nurse, she is at risk of mastitis.

Thankfully, California already has laws in place to protect a woman’s right to breastfeed and/or pump.

For a more detailed discussion of the case, go here, where you can also listen to a recording of what sounds like the employer talking to Venters, explaining how she has no protections (which, if you believe the judge, turned out to be correct), and how generous they are being by showing that she resigned her job (which, of course, denies her unemployment).

California Court of Appeal Rejects “Multi-Tasking” Argument for Exempt Employees

An interesting case involving the Safeway grocery chain could have some far reaching ramifications for California employers.

First a little law. In California, a manager can be exempt from overtime pay, so long as the manager is “primarily engaged” in managerial duties. As was the case many years ago when I worked at a grocery store, managers typically do far more than manage. This case shows little has changed, and the plaintiff, Linda Heyen, when promoted to assistant manager, continued to do all the things she had done before she was promoted, but with added supervisory duties. So, when Heyen was fired, she sued, claiming that she should not have been treated as an exempt employee and was entitled to overtime pay.

Safeway argued that Heyen was properly categorized as exempt, because she was primarily engaged in managerial duties, regardless of what she was doing. When she was stocking shelves, she was still supervising the other employees. When she was running the register, she was still supervising other employees. Here is the claim by Safeway:

Safeway urges that store managers such as Heyen necessarily “multi-task” by engaging in “exempt” and “nonexempt” activities at the same time. In other words, while Heyen and other managers “might be checking and bagging (or doing stock work) they were also always still managing the store operations, including engaging in activities such as observing store operations and employee activities, and instructing employees in their assignments and any corrective measures that needed to be taken.” By instructing the jury that it must determine whether an activity was “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the primary purpose for which Heyen undertook it, the court “effectively [read] the concept of concurrent duties almost out of existence.” Instead, Safeway suggests, the trial court should have instructed the jury that any time Heyen spent simultaneously performing “exempt” and “nonexempt” duties “should be considered to fall on the `exempt’ side of the ledger.”

Here is how the Court of Appeal responded to that argument:

Although there is some intuitive appeal to Safeway’s contention, it is unsupported by California law. As we have said, the federal regulations cited in Wage Order 7 expressly recognize that managers sometimes engage in tasks that do not involve the “actual management of the department [or] the supervision of the employees therein.” (§ 541.108(a).) In those circumstances, the regulations do not say, as Safeway would have us hold, that those tasks should be considered “exempt” so long as the manager continues to supervise while performing them. Instead, the regulations look to the supervisor’s reason or purpose for undertaking the task. If a task is performed because it is “helpful in supervising the employees or contribute[s] to the smooth functioning of the department for which [the supervisors] are responsible” (§ 541.108(a), (c)), the work is exempt; if not, it is nonexempt.

Thus, the federal regulations incorporated into Wage Order 7 do not support the “multi-tasking” standard proposed by Safeway. Instead, they suggest, as the trial court correctly instructed the jury, that the trier of fact must categorize tasks as either “exempt” or “nonexempt” based on the purpose for which Heyen undertook them.

The lesson here for employers is that you don’t get to create exempt employees with a change in title, unless that employee really does become a manager performing primarily managerial duties. From the employee’s perspective, if you get a promotion to manager, but find yourself still performing the same duties, then you are probably entitled to overtime pay.

Former Apple Employee Sues for Wrongful Termination

Here is a interesting wrongful termination action, in that it illustrates a couple of basic points of wrongful termination and should prove to be very informative on the law as it proceeds.

Wayne Goodrich is a former employee of Apple. As an at-will employee, he could of course be terminated without cause. In December 2011 he was terminated by Apple for “business reasons”, and told that the termination had nothing to do with his job performance. Goodrich claims that was a wrongful termination in violation of contract because he was not an at-will employee. He asserts that Steve Jobs gave him a job for life. Goodrich claims that in 2005, during a one-on-one meeting with Steve Jobs, Jobs told him that he would always have a job.

Steve Jobs is dead, and there were no witnesses to the conversation, so we must rely entirely on what Goodrich alleges was said during the conversation. Aside from that problem with proof, Goodrich’s claim will fail for the following reasons.

Goodrich began his job at Apple in 1998. He doesn’t claim that he had a job for life at the time he was hired, but rather that the contract was created by the 2005 statement by Jobs. Under basic contract principles, a contract requires mutual consideration. Goodrich was already working at Apple at the time of the statement, so what did Apple receive in return for this promise of life time employment? Thus, under basic contract principles, the claim fails.

There is a concept called promissory estoppel, which provides the contract consideration if the plaintiff can show that the defendant knew he was relying to his detriment. In other words, if Goodrich had gone to Jobs and informed him that he was leaving to take a job at HP for a much higher salary, and Jobs had said, “don’t take the job at HP, stay here where you will always have a job”, then that detrimental reliance in turning down the HP job could provide the consideration. However, as far as I know, Goodrich is making no such claim.

The other fatal flaw in Goodrich’s case is the wording of the alleged statement. If an employee is going to claim that they were given a job for life, then the terms of that “lifetime job contract” have to be sufficiently certain to be enforceable.

Assume that Jobs said to Goodrich, “Wayne, you’re my guy. I can’t imagine running this company without you. You will always have a job at Apple.”

What does that mean? If Goodrich stopped coming to work and sat at home watching Jerry Springer, would he still have a job for life at Apple? No, I’m sure even Goodrich would stipulate that there were circumstances for which he could be fired. He would probably assert that he could only be fired for cause. But what if the cause is that his job is eliminated, or the company is restructured? Or what if Jobs meant that you’ll always have a job while I’m here? And what about the reverse? Was Goodrich required to stay there for life? Did Jobs really mean that Apple was committed to Goodrich for life, but Goodrich was free to shop around his services to see if he could make more money? That seems unfair and unlikely.

The point is, that simple statement by Jobs is just too uncertain to be enforced. There are circumstances where an employer can transmute an at-will employee into an employee who can only be terminated for cause. We have prevailed on a number of cases on that basis. But based on what I know of this case, claiming a job for life just will not fly. It should also be noted that Steve Jobs himself was fired by Apple, although he was eventually brought back.

We’ll watch this case develop and see if I am prescient. Here is a more detailed article about the action against apple.

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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. Continue reading