Wrongful Termination: Hacienda La Punete Unified Whistleblower Awarded $555K

July 22, 2015 - Betty Ruelas, a former employee of Hacienda La Puente Unified School District, raised concerns about some unusual invoices that were paid to a company running the school district’s after school program. Afterwards, she was forced into early retirement because of her questions regarding the unusual invoices along with a disability and a need to take family medical leave from her work. The questionable invoices were from West Covina-based Institute for Student Success. They were one of two vendors that constituted the operational end of the grant-funded after school programs for Hacienda La Puente Unified School District.

The questionable invoices came from a vendor who was a friend of Superintendent Cynthia Parulan-Colfer. Upon returning from a family medical leave, Ruelas immediately took note of the new vendor and the high numbers attached to their invoices. In Ruelas’ opinion, it was obvious that the vendor was receiving abnormally high compensation for work provided. Parulan-Colfer’s response to accusations about the unfair compensation was that the claims they were highly paid and the fact that she was a friend were unrelated. She claims that Ruelas’ claims were simply false and meant as an attack against the school district.

The claims regarding the invoices were not even addressed by the jury in the case. They stuck to the other two reasons for the alleged wrongful termination.

The vendor began operating the district’s after school program in 2010 and continued through the 2014-15 school year. After a number of questions regarding the invoices, Ruelas claims her superiors on the job harassed her until being placed on disability leave for stress/mental health (April 2012). Once she returned from disability leave, she was transferred to another department. The new department only increased the stress level on the job. When Ruelas requested a transfer back to her old department, the request was denied.

Ruelas again went on disability leave in May 2013. She had developed hives on her eyelids as a result of the severe anxiety that she was suffering at work. She was then forced to retire early at age 53 in July 2013.

On May 13th, the jury ruled in Ruelas’ favor awarding her $555,000 in damages.

If you need assistance with wrongful termination claims or other southern California employment law issues, get in touch with the experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

California Court of Appeals Decision Reviewed by California Supreme Court: Meal Breaks for Hospital Employees on Long Shifts

July 14, 2015 - The California Supreme Court will review the decision made by California Court of Appeals regarding Gerard v. Orange Coast Memorial. The case is regarding providing meal breaks for hospital employees scheduled for long shifts. The meal-break suit outlines the dispute over whether or not an Industrial Welfare Commission order that allows health care workers to waive meal periods provided during long shifts actually conflicts with state law.

The ruling of the California Court of Appeals invalidated the portion of California’s Industrial Welfare Commission or IWC Wage Order No. 5. This particular portion allows non-exempt health care employees to waive their second meal break in shifts that are over 12 hours. It was seen as a landmark decision for both health care workers and their employers. Health care employers have relied on the Wage Order provision as do many other California employers. 

The Gerard case plaintiffs sued under the California Private Attorney General Act on their own behalf and on behalf of other employees in similar situations. They allege that (notwithstanding the Wage Order) Orange Coast Memorial was violating California State Labor Code. Employees at Orange Coast Memorial consistently work 12-hour shifts. Occasionally employees at the medical center work shifts longer than 12 hours. Any hospital employee that worked shifts over 10 hours was able to sign a written waiver of one of their two provided meal periods during long shifts; even if the “long” shift was 12+ hours.

The Court of Appeal addressed the seeming contradiction between IWC Wage Order No. 5 and the California State Labor Code Section 512 regarding meal periods and long shifts. The Court of Appeal ruling is troubling in its reversal of the rule health care facilities/employers rely on regarding non-exempt workers. The state’s high court will take up the case.

If you need additional information on California State Labor Law, IWC Wage Order No. 5 or meal breaks required by law in the workplace, contact the southern California employment law experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik

US Class Action over Children’s Online Facebook Purchases

April 21, 2015 - Facebook, Inc. faces a nationwide class action lawsuit that seeks refunds for purchases children made on Facebook social media company’s website without parental permission. San Jose, California’s U.S. District Judge Beth Labson Freeman said plaintiffs numbering in the hundreds of thousands should press their claim against Facebook to change their online policy regarding purchases by minors.

The judge also stated that plaintiffs would need to seek individual refunds because any refunds would differ for each case making it impossible to seek group compensation/refunds under U.S. Supreme Court precedent. A trial date was set for October 19th.

Facebook responded to the lawsuit stating that they think the case lacks merit. They will be defending themselves wholeheartedly.

According to details outlined in the 2012 lawsuit against Facebook, the social media site allows minors to use their parents’ credit cards to purchase Facebook Credits (online, virtual currency). When parents complained about the purchases made without their permission, Facebook declined their requests for refunds pointing towards their “all sales are final” policy. The suit claims that this response violates California law. Judge Freeman stated that state law offers protection for parents as children sometimes have a lack of judgment when it comes to purchases. Facebook responds that plaintiff claims are too disparate – that they won’t be addressed by an injunction.

The Facebook Credits previously mentioned were discontinued in 2013. The new system in place is called Facebook Payments. The lawsuit was brought by a set of parents and their children. Many wait to see how the case will end and wonder if there will be a possibility that it will set a precedent regarding the treatment of “minor” members of social media sites.

For additional information on becoming a class member or what warrants a class action lawsuit, contact the experts at southern California’s Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Wrongful Termination and Age Discrimination Suit: Branch vs. Kaiser

March 30, 2015 - Belinda Branch worked as a medical assistant for Kaiser until her termination after 34 years on the job. In a complaint filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Ms. Branch claims that she was fired in retaliation for reporting HIPAA violations on the job. Kaiser claims the woman is not trustworthy.

Ms. Branch started work at Kaiser’s Parkview Building in 1978. In regular performance reviews over the course of her 34 years on the job with Kaiser, she was given “exemplary” status. In 2014, after reporting another Kaiser employee for HIPAA violations, Branch became the focus of an investigation.

According to allegations made by Branch, the medical information that was unlawfully released contained private and sensitive medical data (some of which came from the patient’s “General Surgery File.”) Branch claims she was called in to three separate meetings. At the first two, she was confronted by what she described as hostile “compliance” officers intent on an interrogation. In the third meeting in June of 2014, Branch was terminated. She claims she was given an ultimatum: either resign and be allowed unemployment benefits or be fired without access to unemployment benefits.

Branch also claims that the HR department advised her that she should write her resignation letter immediately. She was required to use the exact wording they provided her with or she would be fired on the spot with no chance to access unemployment. Branch claims that she did as requested, but only under what she described as “coercion and manipulation.”

To date, no known action has been taken against the employees who Branch reported as violating HIPAA by sharing patient information without consent. Branch noted in her complaint that all three of the employees involved in the act are younger and that they were treated more favorably.

Branch claims she was fired in retaliation for her whistle-blowing as well as age discrimination.

Branch sued for age discrimination and wrongful termination and intentional infliction of emotional distress. She is seeking general and special damages for loss of earnings (past and future), loss of benefits, damage to professional reputation, failure to advance, and loss of privileges on the job.

If you have questions regarding what constitutes wrongful termination or age discrimination according to California state labor law and federal employment law, contact the experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Wrongful Termination: Former Torrington Teacher Continues Fighting Termination

March 18, 2015 -Giulio Romano, a former Torrington High School teacher of Latin and Italian, sued the Torrington School District for wrongful termination in 2013. The case has come to a halt, but may not be over as Romano vows to keep fighting the “wrongful termination.”

Romano is an Italian native, but was living in Houston, Texas prior to accepting the position offered by the Torrington Board of Education. When he accepted the position, he moved across the country. He began teaching at the beginning of the 2012-13 school year and was fired in February 2013 after only 6 months on the job. Documentation of the case indicates that the school district fired Romano because he used inappropriate language during the course of his teaching and offended several students. 20 of the 60 students signed up for his class dropped the course. When Torrington High School Principal, Joanne Creedon, requested a letter explaining his conduct, Romano failed to comply. The school district also indicated in case documentation that the plaintiff failed to obtain his Connecticut State Teacher Certification.

Romano claims that the school should have expected delays in obtaining his teacher certification as he was educated outside of the country. He also claims that the school district broke an implied contract when he was terminated from the teaching position because they had agreed to assist him in obtaining the necessary certification.

After the case was dismissed in Litchfield Superior Court, Romano filed an appeal. On March 5th, 2015, the court upheld the dismissal. After the 2nd decision for dismissal, Romano still intends to pursue the suit against the Torrington School District, vowing that the case will be heard in a court of law. He insists that the case was dismissed due to a technicality regarding the proper informing of necessary parties of the intention to file a lawsuit. When Romano originally filed suit, he notified the Torrington Superintendant, Cheryl Kloczko, but he did not notify the city clerk (which is required if the party being sued includes a board).

In an attempt to remedy the situation, Romano is considering re-filing the lawsuit and notifying the necessary parties as required.

For additional information on wrongful termination or to determine if employment law applies to your recent termination, contact the southern California employment law experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.

Wrongful Termination Settlement: Ravens pay Ray Rice $1.588 Million

March 11, 2015 -While the details of the January 2015 settlement reached between the Ravens and their former star running back, Ray Rice, were undisclosed, sources indicate that the sides ended up settling for $1.588 million. The star running back was suing for back pay from his $3.529 million base salary for the 2014 season. The football player received a total of $26.588 million on the contract that was signed into being in July of 2012. (This included his $15 million bonus for signing).

Ray Rice’s $35 million contract was abruptly cancelled in September 2014 after graphic video coverage of a domestic violence incident surfaced online. Rice filed a grievance in October 2014.

After reaching a settlement with Rice, the Ravens released a statement regarding the situation indicating that the resolution was intended to put an end to the grievance with the former star running back and that they wanted to put it all behind them and move forward. They also made sure to “wish Janay and Ray Rice the best.” 

Rice was a three-time Pro Bowl selection. Since the incident, Rice has been reinstated from his indefinite league suspension (that began in November of 2014). He hasn’t worked out for or even visited an NFL team since the problems began, but he hopes for a second chance at the game and works out regularly on his own in preparation for that opportunity.

For more information about southern California employment laws and how to fight wrongful termination, contact the southern California employment law experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.


Low-Wage Workers Going Unprotected by Current Minimum Wage Laws

Many low-wage workers hope President Obama’s push to increase the federal minimum wage will offer results. The hope it to increase it to $10.10 per hour (in addition to the recent state-level increases) which would be welcome and exciting news for many in low paying positions. It’s a glimmer of hope that they may not have to struggle so hard to get by on such a small paycheck.

Due to a strange compilation of rules and exemptions on both a federal and state level, there are a number of different “classes” of workers are not protected by minimum wage law. In some cases, workers aren’t just not paid minimum wage, but they are paid well below minimum wage. The complexity of the rules is increased by the fact that state and federal rules and regulations are not always in line with each other. Some of the classes of workers who are often paid below (or well below) minimum wage on the job include:

  • Disabled Workers: federal law allows employers to apply for a special certificate allowing them to decide how much the work of any disabled (physical or mental) worker is worth. The law allowing this was put in place in 1938 and has seen very little change since its inception.
  • Workers at Very Small Businesses: If company gross sales are under $500,000 and no work is done across state lines, federal minimum wage regulations do not apply.
  • Teenage Trainees: There are multiple situations in which federal law allows for exemptions in minimum wage requirements in relation to employment of teenagers/students.
  • Tipped Workers (as mentioned above): According to federal law, minimum wage for tipped workers is $2.13 as long as “tips” bring the overall pay for the worker up to the $7.25 minimum, but this is obviously difficult to regulate and enforce.

These examples make it clear there’s a problem and this is only a small representation of the full list of classes that often include workers “exempt” from federal minimum wage laws. On top of that, there’s the additional confusion of laws and regulations that are in place at state and local levels.

If you have questions regarding minimum wage and hour laws and how they apply to your workplace, your industry and your job duties, please contact the Southern California employment law experts at Blumenthal, Nordrehaug & Bhowmik.