California Supreme Court Limits Rights to Jury Trial for Whistleblower Claims in Health Care

California Health and Safety Code section 1278.5(g) protects health care workers and medical staff from discrimination and retaliation for reporting unsafe patient care and conditions. Recently, the California Supreme Court held that it does not go so far as to provide a right to a jury trial. Claims brought under Section 1278.5(g) do not entitle the parties to a jury trial, but this does not prevent a jury trial on a related claim for wrongful termination that is in violation of public policy.

Consider Shaw v. Superior Court (THC-Orange County, Inc.), Case No. S221530:

In considering Shaw v. Superior Court on April 10, 2017, The California Supreme Court decided that an employee seeking damages for alleged whistleblower retaliation under the law noted above did not have the right to a jury trial. In the case, a Human Resources Coordinator filed a lawsuit against their former employer, a hospital, alleging that she was wrongfully terminated. She claimed that she was fired in retaliation for complaining that the hospital employed unlicensed and/or uncertified health care professionals who did not appropriately complete competencies as required.

She asserted a second cause of action for wrongful termination in violation of public policy seeking an array of damages: compensatory and emotional distress damages, front pay, back pay, lost benefits, lost bonuses, punitive and exemplary damages, prejudgment interest, attorneys’ fees, costs and civil penalties, etc. While the lower courts denied requests for a jury trial, the Court of Appeal reversed, determining that the employee could file a petition for an extraordinary writ seeking appellate review of the trial court’s order without waiting until after the trial on appeal to contest the denial. 

They also ruled that Section 1278.5(g) does not afford a right to a jury trial. As the issue is not expressly addressed in the statute, the Court considered statutory language alongside legislative history reasoning that the court and not a jury must rule on this claim due to the statute expressly providing specific remedies. These specified remedies include: reinstatement, reimbursement of lost wages and benefits and legal costs. These are equitable remedies traditionally decided by a court and others deemed “warranted” by a court. Additionally, legislative history of the statute, specifically amendments made in 2007 allowing courts to fashion other remedies as needed to cover the full spectrum of harm endured by non-employee claimants, indicated the need for a court’s decision.

Despite not being entitled to a jury trial on the Section 1278.5(g) claim, the employee could still seek a jury trial under the Tameny claim based on public policies. The trial court would need to hear both claims side by side and allow the jury to decide the Tameny claim and then the court would determine remaining issues.

While this decision means that employees can get around the absence of a jury trial under Section 1278.5(g) simply through a second Tameny claim based on the same public policies, some remedies would be unavailable. When using a Tameny claim, attorneys’ fees and civil penalties are not available. And in some instances, this type of claim may not be applicable depending upon the plaintiff/defendant relationship.

If you have questions or concerns regarding a potential workplace retaliation situation and you need the assistance of an experienced California employment law attorney, please get in touch with us at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.