Job Applicants Cannot Bring Common Law Tort Actions Against Prospective Employers for “Tameny” Discrimination

The Court of Appeal, Third Appellate District, recently clarified that a common law tort action under Tameny for employer conduct in violation of public policy requires an employment relationship.  In Williams v. Sacramento River Cats Baseball Club, LLC, 40 Cal. App. 5th 280 (2019), plaintiff Wilfert Williams filed a common law tort action against the Sacramento River Cats Baseball Club (“River Cats”) under Tameny for failing to hire him due to his race.  From April 2014 through July 2015, Williams catered meals to the visiting and home team players at Raley field, home of defendant’s minor league baseball team.  The visitor clubhouse manager who hired Williams then recommended him to fill the assistant visitor clubhouse manager position.  However, Williams, who is black, was never interviewed despite his experience and qualifications.  Instead, the River Cats hired an unqualified Caucasian high school student.

Williams sued the River Cats under Tameny for failing to hire him because of his race, arguing that racial discrimination is against public policy.  The trial court dismissed Williams’s complaint, noting that California does not recognize a common law cause of action for failure to hire in violation of public policy.  Williams appealed.

In 1980, the California Supreme Court held in Tameny v. Atlantic Richfield Co., 27 Cal. 3d 167 (1980), that an employee could bring a tort action against an employer for wrongful discharge against public policy.  In Tameny, the plaintiff was fired after he refused to participate in an illegal scheme to fix retail gasoline prices.  The Supreme Court found that an employer’s obligation to refrain from discharging an employee who refuses to commit a criminal act does not depend on any express or implied promises set forth in the employment contract, but rather reflects a duty imposed by law on all employers in order to implement the fundamental public policy embodied in the penal statutes.  The Court stated, “Where the employer’s motivation for [a] discharge contravenes some substantial public policy principle, then the employer may be held liable to the employee for damages…”  Id. at 177.

The California Supreme Court provided guidance in Stevenson v. Superior Court, 16 Cal. 4th 880 (1997), on how to determine whether an employer’s conduct contravened a substantial public policy giving rise to a wrongful termination cause of action under Tameny.  A tortious discharge claim requires that the employee be discharged in violation of a policy that is: “(1) delineated in constitutional or statutory provisions; (2) ‘public’ in the sense that it ‘inures to the benefit of the public’ rather than serving merely the interests of the individual; (3) well established at the time of discharge; and (4) substantial and fundamental.”  Id. at 889-890.  Thereafter, in Miklosy v. Regents of the University of California, 44 Cal. 4th 876, 900 (2008), the California Supreme Court concluded that the Tameny tort requires proof of an employment relationship.

Accordingly, here, because Williams, as a job applicant, was not an employee, River Cats could not be held liable for wrongful discharge against public policy.  However, since failing to hire a prospective employee based on race violates public policy and the law, Williams could seek recourse under the Fair Employment and Housing Act, which provides a statutory cause of action for discriminatory refusal to hire.  The takeaway here is that job applicants cannot bring Tameny tort actions against prospective employers, and must instead seek recourse for employment hiring discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Court of Appeal Affirms Jury Verdict Because Plaintiffs Presented Prima Facie Case of Whistleblower Retaliation

The Court of Appeal, Second Appellate District, recently issued an opinion illustrating the burden of proof in a whistleblower retaliation case.  In Hawkins v. City of L.A., 40 Cal. App. 5th 384 (2019), the court affirmed a jury verdict for plaintiff whistleblowers against the City of Los Angeles, finding that the plaintiffs had presented a prima facie case of retaliation.

Plaintiffs Todd Hawkins and Hyung Kim were part-time administrative hearing examiners for the Department of Transportation under supervisor Walton-Joseph.  In June 2011, Walton-Joseph angrily confronted Hawkins about language he used in a decision.  Hawkins reported the incident to supervisors, and after another confrontation, filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.  Hawkins alleged that Walton-Joseph and another supervisor, Kenneth Heinsius, pressured hearing examiners to change their decisions from not liable to liable, violating the Vehicle Code.  Over the years, approximately 14 hearing examiners, including Hawkins and Kim, complained to supervisors about being pressured to change decisions.  An internal investigation concluded that there was insufficient evidence to support the allegation that hearing examiners were being asked to change decisions.

On October 1, 2013, Heinsius was directed to examine complaints about disruptive conduct of various employees.  Heinsius identified Hawkins and Kim.  The City fired Hawkins in November of 2013 and Kim in December of 2013.  Hawkins and Kim responded by suing the City for whistleblower retaliation, claiming they were fired for whistleblowing on the City’s practice of pressuring hearing examiners to change decisions.  The jury found for Hawkins and Kim on those causes of action, and the trial court assessed a penalty against the City under the Private Attorney General Act (PAGA) and awarded plaintiffs attorney’s fees.  The City appealed.

Labor Code § 1102.5 prohibits employer retaliation against an employee for disclosing a violation of state or federal statute to a government or law enforcement agency.  To establish a violation, a plaintiff must show he engaged in protected activity, his employer subjected him to an adverse employment action, and the existence of a causal link between the two.  Hager v. County of Los Angeles, Cal. App. 4th 1538, 1540 (2014).  If the defendant provides a legitimate, nonretaliatory explanation for its actions, plaintiff must show the explanation was pretext for retaliation.  Morgan v. Regents of University of California, 88 Cal. App. 4th 52, 75 (2000).

The Court of Appeal concluded that Hawkins and Kim were engaged in protected activity by disclosing that they were pressured to change decisions in violation of the Vehicle Code.  Disclosing an illegal activity is protected activity under Labor Code § 1102.5.  Additionally, the court found that the City subjected Hawkins and Kim to an adverse employment action by firing them.  Furthermore, the court found that the closeness in time from the complaints and investigation to the City’s termination of Hawkins and Kim established the necessary causal link.  Lastly, the court found that the evidence of Hawkins and Kim being fired only after complaining of illegal practices (and the existence of overwhelming evidence supporting these complaints) supported the jury’s finding that the City’s reasons for termination were pretextual.  Hawkins and Kim thus established the three elements of their prima facie case of whistleblower retaliation.

Timothy D. Reuben Appointed to ACMAS Committee

Timothy D. Reuben has been appointed as Member to the Attorney-Client Mediation and Arbitration Services (ACMAS) Committee for the Los Angeles County Bar Association’s 2019-2020 year.  As a committee volunteer, Tim joins a group of legal professionals dedicated to meeting the needs of Los Angeles lawyers and advancing the administration of justice.

Garcia v. Border Transportation Group: Two Standards, One Issue

The Court of Appeal, Fourth Appellate District, recently issued an opinion clarifying the appropriate test for whether or not a person is an “employee” or an “independent contractor” in the context of a wage order claim.  In Garcia v. Border Transportation Group, LLC, 28 Cal. App. 5th 558 (2018), plaintiff Jesus Garcia (“Garcia”) was a taxi driver for defendant Border Transportation Group (“BTG”). Following some disputes between Garcia and BTG over the taxi lease, Garcia filed suit in 2015 for wage and hour violations occurring between 2010 and 2014.  Garcia’s complaint also included non-wage-order claims for wrongful termination in violation of public policy, failure to pay overtime, and waiting time penalties.  The issue was whether Garcia would be classified as an employee or an independent contractor under California law.

In the trial court, BTG moved for summary judgment, arguing that Garcia was an independent contractor rather than an employee.  The trial court granted summary judgment as to all causes of action (wage order and non-wage-order claims), citing factors such as the taxi lease agreement between Garcia and BTG expressly disclaiming an employer/employee relationship, lack of instruction on operation of the taxi, lack of an employee handbook, that BTG did not dictate Garcia’s rates or take any fares, and that Garcia marketed his taxi business in his own name.  The rule the trial court used to determine whether or not Garcia was an employee was the multi-factor test from S.G. Borello & Sons, Inc. v. Department of Industrial Relations, 48 Cal. 3d 341 (1989).

Garcia appealed.  After the matter had been briefed in the Court of Appeal, the Supreme Court of California issued its ruling in Dynamex Operations West, Inc. v Superior Court, 4 Cal. 5th 903 (2018).  Dynamex, which dealt with the employee-independent contractor issue, adopted a broad definition of the word “employ” based on Industrial Welfare Commission wage orders (orders regulating hours, wages, working conditions, etc. in certain occupations).  This definition states that “employ” means to “suffer, or permit to work.”  The Dynamex court then decided on a three part “ABC” requirements test, rather than the multifactor Borello approach employed by the trial court in Garcia.  Under the “ABC” test, a worker is presumptively an employee unless all three of the following requirements are met: (A) that the worker is free from the control and direction of the hiring entity in connection with the performance of the work, both under the contract and in fact; and (B) that the worker performs work that is outside the usual course of the hiring entity’s business; and (C) that the worker is customarily engaged in an independently established trade, occupation, or business of the same nature as the work performed.  Dynamex, 4 Cal. 5th at 957.  The Dynamex case provided the framework in which Garcia was decided on appeal.

Focusing on “C” from the Dynamex “ABC” test, the Garcia court decided on appeal that there was a triable issue of material fact as to whether or not Garcia was an employee of BTG for his wage order claims.  While analyzing “C,” the Dynamex court stated that the issue is not whether the person could have an independent business or profession, but whether they actually do have that independent business or profession.  Id. at 962, fn. 30.  When “C” was applied to Garcia, no evidence showed Garcia was providing services independently of his lessee relationship with BTG.  This requirement of the “ABC” test was not met, and the case was reversed and remanded for entry of an order denying summary judgment of Garcia’s wage order claims.  The rebuttable presumption in the Dynamex “ABC” test makes classification as an employee more likely than under the Borello test.  In wage order claims, courts now “look beyond labels and evaluate whether workers are truly engaged in a separate business or whether the business is being used by the employer to evade wage, tax, and other obligations.”  Dynamex, 4 Cal. 5th at 958, fn 26.

Perhaps more significant than the court’s ruling on Garcia’s wage order claims was the court’s ruling on Garcia’s non-wage-order claims.  The court upheld summary judgment of these claims and determined that the “ABC” test would not apply.  The Garcia court followed reasoning from the Court of Appeal in Dynamex, stating that the “suffer or permit to work” standard is logically applied to wage order claims.  This is because the wage orders define “employ” in that language and regulate “very basic” working conditions for California employees, thus warranting a broad definition of employment.  As for non-wage-order claims, the Garcia court found no reason to apply the “ABC” test, particularly because Borello remained the rule in the worker’s compensation context.

The Garcia court’s decision to continue to apply the Borello test to non-wage-order claims was a victory for employers.  There is no rebuttable presumption that a worker is an employee under the Borello test, making it favorable to employers that classify workers as independent contractors.

A striking feature of Garcia was the use of two different standards to analyze the issue of whether a worker is an employee or an independent contractor.  It remains to be seen whether this trend will continue, or whether the “ABC” test will be applied to non-wage-order claims in the future.  Employers will be hoping for the former, while workers will be hoping for the latter.