Wrongful Termination Verdict Has Jury Awarding Woman $492K Instead of $15K Offer

In recent news, a California state court jury awarded $492,000 to a former medical assistant who accused Kaiser Permanente of wrongful termination. Maria Gonzalez claims that the company illegally fired her in order to avoid costly medical treatment her disabled son required. The jury award came after the company attempted to resolve the case several times with settlement offers, the largest of which was $15,000 according to the plaintiff’s attorney.

The jury reached a verdict after a two-week trial. They found that Kaiser’s behavior constituted disability discrimination in terminating Gonzalez in 2014. Gonzalez worked in a pain management clinic. Kaiser claims that she was fired for unauthorized access of her son, Pedro’s, medical records while he was receiving treatment in the clinic.

The jury’s award encompasses past and future economic damages. While the jury declined to award the requested $7 million in non-economic damages, plaintiff’s legal counsel saw the verdict as a positive result for Gonzalez. It should also be noted that Kaiser would also be required to cover attorney fees reaching into the seven figures.

History of the Case:

·       Gonzalez received 11 years of positive performance reviews from Kaiser.

·       The positive reviews continued until her son, Pedro, needed treatment for a chronic kidney disorder.

·       Pedro received coverage through Kaiser. Gonzalez repeatedly sought referrals to specialists outside of Kaiser’s network.

·       When a major operation failed to help Pedro, Gonzalez pushed for a second, more expensive surgery.

·       Allegedly, when Pedro complained about the quality of care he was receiving, a Kaiser physician responded with, “You wouldn’t want anything to happen to your mother, would you?” Kaiser later denied such a statement was made.

Gonzalez is happy with the verdict, but may seek further resolution as legal counsel sees the $0 award is contrary to the law.

If you need further information about wrongful termination of you feel you may have been the victim of wrongful termination, please contact one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

UC Berkeley Is Rocked by Another Sexual Misconduct Scandal

As University of California Berkeley again faces sexual harassment allegations, some might refer to their history in recent years as a plaque of sexual harassment reports. Most recently, a renowned University of California Berkeley professor was sued due to alleged groping of an Asian-American research assistant. The former student, 24-year old Joanna Ong, filed the lawsuit against UC Berkeley’s star Philosophy professor, John R. Searle. She claims that he groper her and when she declined his advances, he fired her.

The California sexual harassment lawsuit was filed at Alameda County Superior Court seeking damages for sexual harassment and assault, wrongful termination and the creation of a hostile work environment. In addition to the star Philosophy professor being listed as defendant in the case, Regents of the University of California were listed as co-dependents.

Ong stated that as such a renowned professor of philosophy, Searle should be completely familiar with the concept of coercion, but that instead both the professor and the university used their power and their platform to abuse others. While 84-year old Searle has stepped down from teaching, he retains emeritus status at the university. He has been teaching at UC Berkeley since 1959 and just last year, the university unveiled the John Searle Center for Social Ontology, the 1st center of its kind in the nation.

It was the same year when Ong was offered a job under Searle. According to court documents, the offer was for $1,000 per month salary as a consultant for the new center, plus $3,000 per month supplemented by Searle himself. Based on Searle’s reputation as an esteemed philosopher at UC Berkeley, Ong accepted the job offer willingly in July 2016. Ong claims the first few days of her job went well. Ong stated that she even shared her worries about making ends meet while pursuing a career in academia. Searle’s response was to reassure Ong that her living costs and needs would be taken care of and urged her to have a relationship of “total trust” with him. Things escalated quickly from that point. Searle allegedly groped Ong in his offer after advising her that they were “going to be lovers” amid other inappropriate claims and insinuations. When his proposal was rejected, Searle apologized and paid Ong the promised $3,000.

When Professor Searle went on vacation, Ong reported the incident to the center’s director, Jennifer Hudin, but no appropriate action was taken. Ong claims that Hudin told her that she would protect her from further advances, but that she also said Searle had previously had sexual relationships with his students in exchange for “academic, monetary or other benefits.”

From that point forward, Ong states that the workplace became increasingly hostile and awkward. When Searle returned from vacation, he pretended nothing happened. Ong stated that for the rest of her time in the position, Searle watched pornography at work, made inappropriately sexist comments when she was nearby, requested that Ong log into an inappropriate website for him, and insisted that Ong read and respond to his emails including flirtatious correspondence with young women (both UC Berkeley students and foreign students from Europe). Some of the women corresponding were asking to be his research assistant; which was at that time Ong’s position. Further complaints to Hudin garnered the response that nothing was done out of respect/loyalty for the professor and because Hudin needed to protect Searle.

Searle eventually cut Ong’s salary in half and fired her soon after the pay cut. Ong’s attorney points out that Hudin and other administrators and professors at UC Berkeley were aware of the lecherous behavior on Searle’s part based on a large amount of evidence of his sexual misconduct by both emails and actual complaints made against him.

If you need to discuss a hostile work environment or sexual harassment in the workplace, please contact one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Wrongful Termination Suit: San Francisco to Pay $2 Million to Fired Worker

After a California jury awarded $2 million to a fired former senior attorney in Herrera’s office who was investigating improper payments, a spokesman for San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera indicated that they were still evaluating options. The San Francisco Superior court jury’s award was granted by Lynn O’Malley Taylor to former Chief Trial Deputy Joanne Hoeper.

Hoeper claimed that she was wrongfully terminated in 2014 as a result of her work on a potential fraud investigation. Her investigation concerned payments that were approved by Herrera’s home office’s claims bureau to homeowners and plumbers used by homeowners for the replacement of private sewer lines they claimed were injured by the roots of trees owned by the city.

The Superior Court trial lasted a month, but the potential fraud investigation Hoeper was in the process of conducting was never concluded. It was not yet determined whether or not the alleged fraud actually occurred. According to court documents, Herrera claimed that Hoeper was terminated due to his dissatisfaction with her management style. He also stated that he started searching for Hoeper’s replacement in 2010 before the even started probing into the sewer-line-payments in the early months of 2012. Contrary to Herrera’s claims, the jury concluded that Hoeper’s efforts to investigate the alleged false claims against the city claiming root damage to plumbing were a substantial and motivating reason for the city’s decision to fire Hoeper. The jury awarded Hoeper $602,000 for lost earnings, future lost earnings of $136,000 and $1,291,000 for her emotional distress from the situation.

If you need help with a wrongful termination or you need assistance determining if you have been wrongfully terminated, please get in touch with one of the experienced California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

California Overtime Lawsuit: Hotel Housekeepers Denied Overtime Pay

While many domestic workers had cause to celebrate in September of 2016, some California hotel housekeepers quickly found that the bill granting permanent California overtime protection for domestic workers did not apply to them. For instance, a hotel owner in East Oakland refused to provide overtime compensation to six housekeepers in his employ. As a result, the employees, along with a legal advocacy firm working on their behalf and the City of Oakland, filed a California Overtime Lawsuit against the Oakland Quality Inn.

In the California overtime lawsuit, the plaintiffs cited additional employment law violations, including:

·       The hotel required employees to work off the clock both before and after shifts.

·       The hotel did not provide mandatory breaks as required by labor law.

·       The hotel retaliated against employees who phoned in sick to work.

The labor law violations cited by the plaintiffs have allegedly been in practice for a minimum of four years. The plaintiffs, one of which only speaks Spanish, got in touch with attorneys at a legal advocacy to seek assistance in obtaining resolution of the matter.

Media reports indicate that legal counsel involved in the case indicated that both fear and employer retaliation are a big problem not just at this one isolated hotel in Oakland, but throughout the housekeeping industry and that they are a tool used to exploit housekeeping staff. The six immigrant women involved in this particular case had to overcome great personal fear in order to seek justice in their difficult situation.

Lead plaintiff in the case gave a city statement saying that she felt bad about her housekeeping position with Oakland Quality Inn because they were suffering in their position – they were worked excessively, were not provided overtime compensation, or offered any overtime or sick time. She specified that they weren’t paid for time off even if they provided a doctor’s note to the hotel.

The lawsuit was filed jointly by the City of Oakland and a legal advocacy firm in Alameda County Superior Court on January 31st, 2017. According to Oakland City Attorney Barbara Parker, it is the city’s first lawsuit under the minimum wage ordinance that voters passed in the fall of 2014. As of March 2015, Oakland’s minimum wage was set at $12.25 with a cost of living increase annually bringing it up to $12.86 per hour.

In the state of California all domestic workers, including hotel housekeepers, are entitled to overtime compensation.

Statistics from the UCLA Labor Center make it clear just how applicable the issue is to California workers with about 2 million California households hiring domestic workers:

·       Housecleaning (54%)

·       Homecare Support for Seniors/Disabled Individuals (27%)

·       Childcare (19%)

Many domestic workers are live-in workers with a number of them working 24-hour shifts. While the signing of bill AB241 granted overtime protection for domestic workers, many are still being exploited in hotels, private facilities, and private homes. While legal protections are in place, the question now is one of enforcement.

The suit seeks unpaid wages/compensation for employees plus penalties and damages.

If you need assistance determining whether or not you are entitled to overtime pay, or if you need to discuss other labor law violations in your workplace, please get in touch with one of the experienced northern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Shedding Some Light on the Serious H1B Visa Program Issue

60 Minutes recently ran a story on the H1B Visa program that showed the impossible situation many American workers found themselves in when they were told to train their own replacements. These workers from foreign countries were a part of the H1B Visa program, which is intended to save taxpayers millions of dollars through outsourcing, but the alleged long-term benefits for taxpayers are of no comfort to those who are facing the loss of their jobs.

American workers interviewed about the situation were still having trouble “wrapping their minds” around actually being forced to train someone to take their own position; their livelihood. Workers agreed with interviewers that the situation feels like being forced to dig their own grave…and then get in it.

Robert Harrison, one of the workers interviewed regarding the situation, is an engineer previously employed by UCSF Medical. Harrison was fired along with 80 of his co-workers recently when their jobs were outsourced to India. Before leaving his position, Harrison, like his coworkers, was forced to train his own replacement. The situation left Harrison, and many American workers in similar situations, outraged and angry. Harrison had to sit next to the worker chosen to replace him in his position at UCSF Medical - wishing the entire time that he wasn’t being forced to work with his own replacement sitting next to him “shadowing” him and attempting to learn all that he knows in order to step into Harrison’s place at the company. Yet doing so was the only way to ensure that he would receive pay through February 2017 as well as a promised bonus. Making the full pay contingent upon fulfilling obligations to train replacements left Harrison, and many like him, with his hands tied. 

Representation for hundreds of workers who have been fired from their jobs in favor of foreign workers with H1B Visas stated emphatically that the situation should offend everyone. She insists that no one should be told that they are losing their job because they are being replaced by cheap, foreign labor. It is an insult to each and every worker being forced to train their own replacements and seek employment elsewhere.

The H1B visa was created in 1990 to help the United States attract the top foreign graduates and offer them a path to United States citizenship. When the program was created, Congress promised American workers that their jobs would be protected. Almost every major tech company has employees here on H1B visas, including Apple, Google, etc. Media companies also embrace the practice. The author of the H1-B Visa bill, Former Congressman Bruce Morrison, has stated that the bill has been “hijacked.”

If you have questions about how the H1B visa program could affect your job or your workplace, please get in touch with one of the experienced southern and northern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Applicants Sue PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP for Alleged Age Bias

Applicants of a proposed class of 40 and over job seekers rejected by PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP allege age discrimination on the part of the accounting giant, specifically citing the company’s employment practices. The applicants say that the hiring (in addition to other employment practices) inadvertently favor younger potential employees while discouraging older applicants.

Recently a federal judge in California ruled that the company would need to defend against the claims; in opposition to the previous conclusion reached in October 2016 by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit. The federal judge’s conclusion embraces the view of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. The case could lead to a possible showdown between federal courts regarding who can bring this type of discrimination claims under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. Although the U.S. Supreme Court has been asked to look at the Eleventh Circuit’s ruling so they may address the issue before it comes to that.

If the justices decide to review this particular case, they would necessarily need to consider the question of how much deference lower courts owe to the EEOC’s views on this particular issue.

PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP’s Reaction to the Ruling:

PwC’s argument that the job applicants didn’t have the right to sue for disparate-impact bias because they were not actually hired failed according to the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California’s decision February 17th. The theory behind disparate-impact claims allege unintended biased effects resulting from policies or practices that may not be explicitly discriminatory. The allegation PwC is facing cites the company’s tool that purposefully recruits college students as limiting potential for hiring to recent college graduates and applicants with impending college graduations.

In October, a similar claim was brought before the Eleventh Circuit regarding the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. Allegations in this case included that the company used guidelines to review resumes submitted for open positions that targeted job applicants that were only 2-3 years out from college graduation. In the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. case, the court held that only the workers already hired could bring disparate-impact claims and that potential employees still in the hiring process or being considered for a position may sue only for intentional age discrimination.

In response to the situation, PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP stated that they respect all anti-discrimination laws, but do not agree with the interpretation of the court regarding the situation. The company spokesperson, advised that the firm believes that the provision of the ADEA does not apply to applicants for open positions.

Lead class counsel Outten & Golden LLP had a different take on the same issue. They found the Court’s decision to follow decades of Supreme Court precedent pleasing in its confirmation that job applicants can challenge age discrimination through the conventional disparate impact theory. They noted that Congress carefully ensured that all individuals could depend on coverage, not just employees. They also pointed out that it has been pointed out by the Supreme Court numerous times that the ADEA should be read similar to other civil rights statues (like the Fair Housing Act or Title VII) in order to include the types of claims being questioned.

U.S. District Judge Jon S. Tigar’s rejection of PwC’s attempted reliance on the Eleventh Circuit’s decision in the Villarreal v. R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co., was based on a different interpretation of the ADEA in comparison to the majority. Tigar points to the phrase “any individual” used in the law providing a claim for disparate-impact bias and indicates that it does not use the narrower term “employee” even though the narrower term, “employee,” is used in other sections.

Because of the specific word use, Tigar concluded that it can be assumed that Congress’ variation in the terms used was deliberate and indicated that they intended to include all individuals rather than limiting the protections offered to employees. Tigar’s reading is supported by Supreme Court cases that signal disparate-impact claims may be brought by 40+ applicants for jobs.

While the plain language of the law in this case may continue to see varying interpretations, Tigar argued that the law should be viewed as providing protections for 40+ applicants alleging discrimination in employment and hiring policies like PwC’s college student recruitment tool. When a statute’s meaning is not clear the court should grant deference to the stance of the federal agency that is actually tasked with enforcing the law. In the case in question, the agency tasked with enforcement is the EEOC, which has interpreted the ADEA in the past as permitting disparate impact claims by applicants. PwC did not provide a substantial or compelling argument for not adhering to long-established views of the EEOC. Additionally, the law’s legislative history also supports rejection of the position the company is taking that the law only provides protection for employees. The Court added that Congress intended for the ADEA to overcome barriers to employment for older workers, not just age discrimination that may be faced once they’re hired.

If you have questions regarding age discrimination in the workplace or in the hiring process, please get in touch with the experienced northern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Are Hugs a Hostile Act in the Workplace?

Are hugs a hostile act? What about in the work environment? In a recent decision by the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals a sexual harassment lawsuit against Yolo County Sheriff Edward G. Prieto was revived. According to the lawsuit, Prieto allegedly hugged a female correctional officer more than 100 times over the course of 12 years.

In defense of the “hugging,” Prieto argued that he also hugged male employees in the workplace. His lawyers further argued that if he hugged the women in the workplace more, it was simply due to general differences in the way that men and women interact on a routine basis with members of the same and opposite sex. Yet according to the 9th Circuit, hugging can create an abusive work environment if the action is unwelcome and pervasive.

Plaintiff in the case, Victoria Zetwick, was a correctional officer. She also alleges in the suit that Prieto once kissed her when congratulating her on her wedding to another deputy. She claims she saw him hug dozens of other female employees throughout her 12 years on the job, but only give male employees handshakes. During the case, Yolo County defense did get Zetwick to admit that she had been known to hug male co-workers on occasion. The Yolo defense team also pointed out a statement in which Zetwick described Prieto’s hugs as “brief.” There were no sexual comments or other touching.

In 2014, a federal district judge dismissed Zetwick’s lawsuit, but in appeal the court found she had offered up enough evidence to possibly persuade a juror of reasonable mind that she had experienced sexual harassment in the workplace due to Prieto’s tendency to hug female workers in the department. They indicated that it would seem that Zetwick had offered evidence that there were both qualitative and quantitative differences in the conduct of Prieto toward the two genders. In the suit, Zetwick stated that the behavior made it difficult for her to concentrate, left her stressed and anxious and eventually made her resort to sleeping medication.

If you need information about hostile workplace environments or hostile actions in the workplace, please get in touch with one of the experienced southern California employment law attorneys at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.