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Recovery of Attorneys Fees and Punitive Damages Permitted in Claim of Retaliation

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In Green v. Laibco, LLC, the California Court of Appeal upheld an award of over $1Million in attorney fees and $1 Million in punitive damages in a wrongful termination action filed pursuant to the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and on other claims.

Subsequent to her termination, the Plaintiff, a 21 year employee, sued alleging that her discharge was in retaliation for her complaints about patient care and safety, for refusing to give false information to the Department of Health Services, and for complaining about the sexual harassment of a colleague. She alleged wrongful termination in violation of public policy and retaliatory termination, among other claims.

The Facts: The Plaintiff filed an internal complaint regarding several incidents of sexual harassment against another employee. Following the report, the Plaintiff then complained that she was not getting the support she needed from other departments in the facility. In response to her complaints, the manager stated: “Well, … why did you report that?….”

At trial, the Plaintiff prevailed and the Court approved an award of $1,237,086.00 in compensatory damages and $1,237,086.00 in punitive damages. The jury found that the sexual harassment complaints were a motivating reason for her discharge.

On appeal, the Court found that the evidence established various acts of retaliatory conduct that persisted until the Plaintiff’s termination and that a jury could reasonably conclude that the complaint about the co-workers’ sexual harassment was a motivating factor in the Plaintiff’s firing.

The court noted that even though some time has lapsed between the harassment complaint and the termination, there was a pattern of conduct consistent with a retaliatory intent, evidencing a sufficient connection between the complaint, the retaliation and the termination decision. Accordingly, the court upheld the punitive damage award and the award of attorney fee under FEHA.

As a result of this decision, employees may find it easier to present a causal connection sufficient to establish motivation for the purposes of a lawsuit if the employer engages in “a pattern of conduct consistent with retaliatory intent” even if some time has passed between the complained of conduct and the termination.

What Should You Do?

 

  • Take all complaints of harassment or workplace safety seriously and consider these complaints to be “protected activity”.\
  • Undertake a proper, unbiased and complete investigation into the complaints.
  • Undertake proper and prompt remedial action.
  • Ensure that no retaliatory conduct occurs following an employee’s report of harassment, discrimination or unsafe working conditions.
  • Document everything.