Articles Posted in Wrongful Termination

You may have heard before that when it comes to testifying, whether you are the plaintiff or the defendant in a case, your credibility is of critical importance. This is because so many cases inevitably involve “he said / she said” situation, where the fact finder (a judge or a jury) has to decide who to believe. If they find that you appeared dishonest on one issue during your testimony, then they will be doubting everything else you say.

Video depositions tend to significantly amplify gestures and body language of a witness because the camera is zoomed in and focused on the testifying witness’ face. In many ways, these gestures are way more obvious on a video than in person. A smirk or an eye roll that a jury might overlook during a live testimony in a courtroom when they are 30 feet or more away from the testifying witness is hard to miss on a video, when played in front of a jury.

Having your eyes race and shift side to side is one common behavior you should avoid during your video deposition, especially when it comes to answering simple questions, because it strongly suggests that your mind is racing to find the answer that serves you best, instead of simply stating the truth as it is.

preventing future wrongful terminationMany workers find themselves in a situation where they believe (and often rightfully so) that they will soon be wrongfully terminated due to some type of discrimination or retaliation. Can anything be done to prevent a future wrongful termination form taking place?

Realistically, there is nothing you can do to physically prevent your employer from firing you, if they are determined to do so. Just like they can’t force you to work for them against your will, you or anyone else can’t force them to employ you for longer than they want to. However, there are several things you can do to make your potential future wrongful termination case stronger:

  • Make sure you don’t give your employer any independent, lawful reasons for firing you. For instance, if you send mean / rude emails to your boss who has been retaliating against you in violation of the law, and you are terminated shorly after sending those email for some type of policy violation of verbal violence (which would be totally lawful), it will be quite hard to prove that the reason for your termination was that unlawful retaliation you were experiencing before, and not those angry emails that you sent most recently prior to your termination.

dual employment under FEHA contracting employ8erMany employers use temporary staffing agencies and recruiting agencies for hiring workers, in part, in order to insulate themselves from liability for potential discrimination, retaliation, and wrongful termination claims. They believe and are often advised that if their workers are hired through and are paid by an outside agency, then they will be off the hook for any such claims. However, this is not necessarily the case, as California law often finds “dual employment” relationship in these types of situations.

California FEHA (Fair Employment and Housing Act) that governs state discrimination and retaliation claims does not define “employee,” but the administrative agency charged with interpreting FEHA—the Fair Employment and Housing Council (FEHC)—does define the term in Gov. Code section 12935. The FEHC defines “employee” as  “any individual under the

direction and control of an employer under any appointment or contract of hire or apprenticeship, express or implied, oral or written.” FEHA thus requires an employment relationship, but that relationship need not be direct. Instead, the employment relationship must show the employer’s exercise of direction and control over the employee. Direction and control may be shown by, among other factors, whether the employee must obey instructions from the employer and whether “there was a right to terminate the service at any time.”

In order to decide whether to file a case for wage violation or harassment / discrimination against the employer that you are still working for, you should take into account not only the legal aspects of your potential case but also the practical factors. In the short audio recording below, I talk about three key questions you should ask yourself when deciding whether to bring a case against your present employer. I also bring examples of two different situations to illustrate the point:

misconceptions about wrongful termination casesIt’s important to be aware of the following three typical misconceptions that many wrongful termination claimants have, so that you don’t have the same incorrect ideas about the process of pursuing your case:

1.”This is not about money, but about justice”.  I hear this statement quite often. Clients really want to emphasize that they are not greedy and that they have a higher goal in pursuing their case. However, you must remember that whether you win your case, or lose, or settle out of court, your employer is most likely not going to admit that they made a mistake, and they are not going to apologize to you. They are also not going to be forced by court or anyone else to change their practices except for in very special circumstances. This is means that the only remedy you have for the violation committed by the employer is monetary compensation. In other words, it is about money now – it’s about you seeking monetary compensation for your job loss and any related losses. This is a perfectly legitimate goal, even if it doesn’t sound as noble as seeking “justice”.

The same applies to the idea of pursuing a case because you don’t want your employer to “get away with what they have done.” Your managers are not going to go to jail for terminating you and they are otherwise unlikely to be punished, since the employer usually believes that they are right and you are wrong, just as strongly as you believe that the opposite is true. And if they end up paying a settlement or a court verdict, their operations will continue as usual. Your case is not about punishing your former employer, but about seeking maximum reward and benefit for yourself. This is a good time to be selfish and worry about how you can benefit from your case, rather than how much you are going to make the other side lose.

bonus california lawMany employers, especially in the tech / start-up world often fire an employee right before his bonus or commissions in order to avoid paying that bonus. Of course this is more likely to happen if the bonus due is significant. If there is sufficient evidence that avoiding to pay bonus was the reason or one of the reasons for termination, this can support a claim for wrongful termination in violation of public policy. This type of claim is particularly strong if (1) the employee to be terminated was a high performer (2) he was terminated for a petty reason and/or (3) the company didn’t follow its normal disciplinary, investigation and termination procedures that are in place; and (4) the termination took place right before the bonus would have been due or paid.

Many employers do not realize that bonuses earned (as opposed to discretionary bonuses) are to be treated as wages as per California Labor Code Section 200. Neisendorf v. Levi Strauss 13 & Co. (2006) 143 Cal.App.4th 509. It is also established that an employer cannot terminate an employee and refuse to pay that employee the bonus he or she earned simply because the involuntarily terminated employee was not employed on the date bonuses were paid. McCollum v., Inc.,212 F.Supp.2d 1142 (N.D. Cal 2002) (employee was terminated two weeks before she would have been entitled to $75,000 in commissions); Ellis v. McKinnon Broadcasting Co. (1993) 18 Cal.App.4th 1796. 

Many comp plans provide employers with discretionary power to forfeit a bonus otherwise due. California law is clear, however, that “where a contract confers one party with discretionary power affecting the rights of the other, a duty is imposed to exercise that discretion in good faith and in accordance with fair dealing.” Locke v. Warner Brothers, Inc., 57 Cal.App.4th 354 (1997).  Therefore, if one party exercises its discretionary authority in bad faith for the purpose of frustrating the other party’s legitimate expectations, it has breached the implied covenant. Commercial Union Assurance Cos. v. Safeway Stores, Inc., 26 Cal.3d 912 (1980). In other words, an employer must have a good reason for bonuses forfeiture, if so allowed by the comp plan, and it can’t just be any reason.

witness statements in an employment case The importance of witnesses and witness statements in an employment or a wrongful termination case cannot be overstated. Even one witness can make a difference between having a no case and having a case, and between having a weaker case and having a very strong case. This is especially true in harassment case, which often come down to he-said-she-said situation, i.e. where the victim of harassment makes certain allegations against his or her manager, while the alleged harasser denies all or most of the allegations. Although the words of a victim count for something, this puts the judge / potential jury in a predicament: who should they believe?

However, if there was even witness who is willing to come out and testify or sign a one page document stating what he saw, this will likely make a critical difference in your ability to prove your case. This is as important at trial as it is during any type of settlement discussions.  Here are a few common examples where a witness can turn a potentially weak case into a strong case:

(a) Harassment case – an employee claims that her manager was grabbing her by her buttocks and was refer to her on multiple occasions as “cute enough to eat.” That manager denies ever doing or saying the above. However, one witness – co-worker is willing to testify or sign a declaration that she saw that manager grab the complainant by her rear on at least two occasions.

presenting wrongful termination case to a lawyerHere are my top three tips on presenting your potential employment case or wrongful termination case to a lawyer:

I. Be able to explain the basics of your case in just a few sentences to capture a lawyers attention right away. For instance the following would be an excellent way to initially describe your case: “I have been employed with company x for 10 years and received mostly good reviews. 3 weeks after returning from medical leave or after filing a workers comp claim, I was terminated for not being a “team players” or based on false accusations.”  There is no reason with telling the lawyer that your case is very complicated, because  lawyers believe that “complicated” case all too often means no case.

When describing the employer’s actions against you, be specific and do not use generic adjectives. For instance, “verbal assault” or “harassment” doesn’t really tell your lawyer about what happened. But, “I am going to kill you” or “he grabbed me by my breast” gives that specific information that would be really useful to your lawyer.

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