No matter what side of the workplace dispute you are on – whether you are an employee, a supervisor or the employer, it is important to remember one fundamental fact about California employment law: not every conduct which seems unfair is actually illegal, and not every violation of the law is worth pursuing through court or other enforcement bodies. Failure to take this very practical reality into consideration leads many employees, companies and attorneys to waste a lot of time, money, energy, and emotions. An aggrieved employee who believes that he was wrongfully terminated and discriminated will usually not bother to actually look up or inquire about the law and find out whether what happened to him was actually discrimination and what exactly makes his termination wrongful. An employee would rely on his anger and pure gut feeling in pursuing legal action without even knowing whether the employer who mistreated him or her actually violated the law.
This employee will likely not listen to the words of a seasoned employment lawyer who would explain to him why he shouldn’t be pursuing the claim, and will continue to look for an attorney to take his “case” until he finds one whose lack of experience in distinguishing meritorious claims from all the others and his possible need for more business will cause him to actually take the case and pursue it toward a dead end.
Employers, especially smaller companies who don’t even have a well-trained human resources department often fall victims to their ignorance of the law as well. They believe that they can avoid liability by simply relying in their actions and relationship with employees on what they think is fair. A common trap into which such employers fall is believing that the at-will employment doctrine gives them more protection when terminating employees than it actually does under the law. In one case, one of my clients was an at-will employee in San Francisco who was terminated two days after notifying his supervisor that he has a disability. When I contacted the owner of the company, he arrogantly told me that I was wasting my time and that he did everything right – according to him, my client was an at-will employee who could have been discharged for any reason or no reason. While this is in part true, his employer didn’t know and didn’t bother to find out that there are quite a few significant limitations on at-will employment doctrine in California. If he did, he would probably recognize that his actions were illegal, and he would opt to engage in settlement negotiations. Instead, he brushed me off. Many months and thousands of dollars in attorneys fees later, he was facing a far greater liability to my client, eventually paying more than twice as much as he could have settled for at the outset of my representation.
Both sides – the employer and the employee – must remember that no matter how emotional and stressful the workplace disputes, acts of discrimination, harassment, and termination might be, at the end of the day, pursuing legal action is a business decision and it should be treated as such. Fighting for the sake of fighting, principles and “justice” might sound like a noble battle in theory, but such an ideological approach to litigation of employment claims often makes little sense in the real world and makes both parties lose more than gain.
I remember a client tell one of my mentoring labor and employment attorneys in San Francisco: “This case is not about money to me; it’s about justice, about principle,” to which the attorney would respond: “No, it is about money, because that’s the remedy that we have and you expect, so let’s not make a mistake about it.”