3 Lawsuits That Are Changing the California Labor Law Landscape

Employment lawsuits have risen to their highest peak in history, with almost 100,000 claims files in 2010, according to the EEOC. Incredibly, that number reflects a 31% increase from just 4 years ago! There is a never-ending flow of new court cases and decisions that change the employment landscape, making it extremely difficult for employers to stay ahead of the curve. Particularly in California, labor law evolves faster than federal law, adding to the complexity of employment compliance.

In the first half of 2011, employment and labor lawsuits in California have resulted in many important decisions that will directly affect the way employers in the state relate to their employees. Many of these cases have already been decided upon by the California Supreme Court, while others are still pending a decision.

Below is a brief outline of three key cases, and an important “take away” for employers from each one.

Case #1

Summary: The Plaintiff was a senior executive at Google and claimed that he was discriminated against because of his age in a notoriously “young” corporate culture. To support his case, he relied on various comments by superiors and coworkers that his ideas were “obsolete” or “too old to matter,” that he was not a “cultural fit” and that he was an “old man” and an “old fuddy-duddy.” Google argued that none of these remarks were made in connection with any employment decision and should be deemed irrelevant “stray remarks.”

The California Supreme Court rejected the notion that “stray remarks” made by non-managerial staff, or by supervisors outside of the disciplinary process, should not be given weight in court. Rather, such “stray remarks” may and should be considered in the context of the evidence and could be used towards reaching a final decision.

Take away: All managers should be aware of what is being said in the workplace, even in casual talk between employees, and to be proactive in eliminating derogatory or discriminatory remarks.

Case #2

Summary: This employer’s corporate location was based in California, but had employees working out-of-state. Due to California’s dissimilar overtime laws, the employer paid the out-of-state employee based on his state of residency, and not according to California’s overtime regulations. The California Supreme Court is currently reviewing the case to determine if the California Labor Code applies to overtime worked in California for a California-based employer, by out-of-state workers.

Take away: While the case is still pending before the Supreme Court, employers should carefully review all state labor code guidelines.

Case #3

Summary: The E.E.O.C. sued a California airport services company based on a male employee’s allegation that he was sexually harassed by a female co-worker and thus suffered from a hostile work environment. The California Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a summary judgment for the employer, emphasizing that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act entitles men, like women, to protection from an abusive work environment. The California Supreme Court eventually found in favor of male plaintiff.

Take away: Never just tell a male employee to “Be a man” or “Get over it”, if he claims of harassment. Take the claim seriously and conduct a proper investigation.

In conclusion

Most work related acts made by employers toward employees are not intentionally bigoted, malicious or discriminatory by nature. However, the complexity of labor laws in California demand that employers act with extreme caution when engaging employees and making employment decisions. In many cases, these actions can and will be brought against them in an employment lawsuit. As a reminder, California labor laws differ in many areas from Federal laws, so check with legal counsel before making any questionable employment decision or act.