Key California Employment Law Cases: January 2018

Payne & Fears

This month’s key California employment law cases both involve jury trials of discrimination claims, and the extent to which the plaintiffs were able to recover attorney’s fees and damages.

Bustos v. Glob. P.E.T., Inc., 19 Cal. App. 5th 558, 227 Cal. Rptr. 3d 205 (2017)

Summary: Trial court appropriately exercised discretion to deny plaintiff attorney’s fees even though plaintiff suffered adverse employment decision in which discrimination was motivating factor.

Facts: Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against his former employers alleging disability discrimination.  A jury found that plaintiff’s disability was a substantial motivating reason for his termination, but nevertheless returned defense verdicts on each of his claims.  After trial, plaintiff sought an award of attorney’s fees under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), citing Harris v. City of Santa Monica, 56 Cal. 4th 203, 152 Cal. Rptr. 3d 392 (2013), for the proposition that a plaintiff subject to an adverse employment decision in which discrimination was a substantial motivating factor may be eligible for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs expended for the purpose of redressing, preventing, or deterring that discrimination, even if the discrimination did not result in a compensable injury.  The trial court denied plaintiff’s motion for attorney’s fees. 

Court’s Decision: The California Court of Appeal affirmed, holding that the trial court did not abuse its discretion in denying plaintiff attorney’s fees because he had not realized his litigation objectives of any monetary or equitable relief, regardless of whether one or more preliminary questions on a special verdict form were answered in his favor.  Harris does not require a trial court to award attorney’s fees to any plaintiff who proves discrimination was a substantial motivating factor of an adverse employment decision.  Rather, a plaintiff may be eligible to recover attorney’s fees at the court’s discretion.

Practical Implications: An employee who proves discrimination was a substantial motivating factor for an adverse employment decision does not automatically receive attorney’s fees under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.  Rather, that employee becomes eligible to recover attorney’s fees and the court has discretion to determine whether or not to award them.

Simers v. Los Angeles Times Commc’ns, LLC, 18 Cal. App. 5th 1248, 227 Cal. Rptr. 3d 695 (2018)

Summary: Imposing standard disciplinary actions on employee does not constitute constructive discharge unless they involve continuous patterns of mistreatment or unusually aggravated working conditions. 

Facts: Plaintiff, a well-known sports columnist, sued defendant Los Angeles Times alleging disability and age discrimination, and constructive termination.  After a four-week trial, the jury awarded plaintiff $2,137,391 in economic damages for harm caused by his constructive termination and $5 million in noneconomic damages.  The parties agreed to give the jury a special verdict form that instructed them to fill in the blanks for past and future economic damages only if they found plaintiff was constructively terminated.  The special verdict form allowed the jury to award past and future noneconomic damages without identifying which noneconomic damages were caused by the constructive termination separate from discrimination.  The trial court granted defendant’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict on plaintiff’s constructive termination claim, but otherwise denied the motion, finding substantial evidence supported the verdict on plaintiff’s age and disability discrimination claims.  The trial court also granted defendant’s motion for a new trial on all damages, economic and noneconomic, finding it was not possible to determine what amount of noneconomic damages the jury awarded because of discrimination but not because of constructive discharge.  The trial court denied defendant’s motion for a new trial on plaintiff’s discrimination claims.  Both parties appealed.

Court’s Decision: The California Court of Appeal affirmed.  First, the use of standard employer disciplinary actions – e.g., criticism, investigation, demotion, performance plan – cannot constitute constructive discharge, even if undertaken for reasons later found to involve discrimination, unless they were employed in an unusually aggravated manner or involved a pattern of continuous mistreatment.  Second, a new trial on damages was proper because it was impossible to separate what damages may have been awarded for discrimination alone.  Third, on plaintiff’s age and disability discrimination claims, the court rejected defendant’s claim that plaintiff did not experience an adverse employment action, noting that substantial evidence showed otherwise.  Fourth, regarding the ruling denying a new trial on the discrimination claims, the issue of liability for discrimination was plainly determined by the jury, and liability was independent of whether defendant’s conduct amounted to a constructive discharge.  As such, defendant would not be prejudiced by a new trial limited to the amount of noneconomic damages that resulted from discrimination.

Practical Implications: Employers are well served by treating all employees with dignity and respect even when employing standard disciplinary actions.  Doing so in an unusually aggravated manner or involving a pattern of continuous mistreatment can result in a claim of constructive discharge.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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