Category Archives: Disability Discrimination

Harris v. Bingham McCutchen – Victory on Arbitration Issue

Robert Odell Arbitration Harris v. Bingham McCutchenEarlier this month, the California Court of Appeal denied mega law firm Bingham McCutchen’s attempt to have a wrongful termination lawsuit (filed against them by a former associate, Hartwell Harris) thrown out of court and into binding arbitration. (Click here read the court’s decision).

All all three justices in Division Five of California’s Second Appellate District unanimously agreed that Bingham’s arbitration agreement (which forces all of its employees to arbitrate their claims against the company rather than file lawsuits in court) was invalid under Massachusetts law, which was also Bingham’s own choice in drafting their agreements.

Law Firm Fails to Enforce its Own Arbitration Clause

Ms. Harris worked for Bingham in their Santa Monica, CA office as a litigation associate from May 2007 until February 2011 when she was fired after developing a rare sleep disorder called Delayed Sleep-Phase Syndrome. She later filed a lawsuit against Bingham in November 2011, claiming that, despite her positive reviews, Bingham terminated her once they learned of her disability and need for accommodation while she returned to a normal sleep cycle.

After the lawsuit was filed in Los Angeles Superior Court, Bingham moved to compel the case to binding arbitration, citing the arbitration clause in Harris’ employment contract.  Presiding Judge Mel Red Recana, however, agreed with Harris’s attorney, Tamara S. Freeze, and denied Bingham’s arbitration petition on the grounds that the provision was not enforceable under Massachusetts law, which Bingham had decided would control the contract.

Bingham then appealed the trial court’s decision, however, the California Court of Appeal affirmed the lower court’s denial in a strong 3-0 decision – both ordering their opinion to be published in the appellate records and ordering Bingham to pay Harris her costs on appeal.

Attorney Reaction

Regarding the appeal, the Law Offices of Tamara S. Freeze has stated on their blog:

“Ironically, Bingham McCutchen knew their arbitration agreement, as originally drafted, was invalid in light of a 2009 Massachusetts Supreme Court opinion: Warfield v. Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Inc. but apparently forgot to update it. Indeed, Bingham’s own attorneys published a press release on their website warning their clients about this new law and how it would affect arbitration agreements . . . a warning that Bingham apparently failed to heed itself. For obvious reasons, the publication has since disappeared from Bingham’s website (but we still have a copy HERE).”

Hartwell Harris was represented by Tamara Freeze, Robert Odell, Allison Lin and law clerk Harrison Brown.

 

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Filed under Disability Discrimination, Disabling Injury and Illness, Discrimination

Mixed-Motive Employment Discrimination

Harris v. City of Santa Monica Employment Lawyer Pregnancy DiscriminationThe California Supreme Court just came down with a big decision regarding employment discrimination. Employment lawyers across the state are describing Harris v. City of Santa Monica as a compromise between employee rights and business’ freedom to terminate employees. I find the decision fair, despite the fact that I was rooting for Ms. Harris.

Fair Employment and Housing Act – Pregnancy Discrimination

The facts of the case are relatively straight forward: a bus driver alleged that she was fired by the City of Santa Monica because of her pregnancy in violation of the FEHA. The City claimed that she was fired for poor job performance. At trial, the City argued that if the jury found a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives in Harris’ termination, the City could avoid liability by proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led it to make the same decision to fire her. The trial court denied the City’s argument, and the jury awarded her $177,905 in damages and more than $400,000 in attorney fees. The Court of Appeal reversed, and the Supreme Court granted cert.

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Supreme Court Decision – Employment Lawyers Say “Compromise”

“We hold that under the FEHA, when a jury finds that unlawful discrimination was a substantial factor motivating a termination of employment, and when the employer proves it would have made the same decision absent such discrimination, a court may not award damages, backpay, or an order of reinstatement. But the employer does not escape liability. In light of the FEHA‘s express purpose of not only redressing but also preventing and deterring unlawful discrimination in the workplace, the plaintiff in this circumstance could still be awarded, where appropriate, declaratory relief or injunctive relief to stop discriminatory practices. In addition, the plaintiff may be eligible for reasonable attorney‘s fees and costs. Therefore, we affirm the Court of Appeal‘s judgment overturning the damages verdict in this case and remand for further proceedings in accordance with the instructions set forth below.”

As most readers can tell, the court was trying to make employers and employees happy. This decision permits employees to still bring lawsuits when the employer has a mixed motive, however limits the damages attainable.

Some plaintiff attorneys question whether the court adequately defined when discrimination becomes a “substantial factor” in workplace discipline. The high court’s opinion concluded that “mere discriminatory thoughts or stray opinions are not sufficient to establish liability” under state law. The justices refused to offer a more specific definition “given the wide range of scenarios in which mixed-motive cases might arise.”

All in all, this is just another day in the life of an employment attorney.

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Branigan Robertson is a California employment lawyer who exclusively represents employees in workplace disputes. He focuses his practice on sexual harassment, wage & hour, wrongful termination, and retaliation. Visit his website at BRobertsonLaw.com or call his office at 949.667.3025.

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Filed under Age Discrimination, Disability Discrimination, Discrimination, FEHA – Fair Employment & Housing Act, National Origin Discrimination, Pregnancy, Race Discrimination, Religious Discrimination, Sex Discrimination, Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Can I be fired for being fat? Is obesity a ‘disability’ in California?

Let’s be honest, obesity is an epidemic. According to California Health and Human Services, approximately three in five adults are overweight or obese in California. Although recent trends suggest leveling growth rates of obesity in the state, overall obesity rates remain extremely high.

Not surprisingly, some bosses view their obese employees as limited, incapable, slow, unhealthy, or expendable. More likely than not, an obese employee is granted fewer mistakes, fewer promotions, and fewer raises than a skinny employee. It is not uncommon for someone to get fired explicitly because of their weight.

There is no law in California that states that an employer cannot fire or discriminate against an employee because of their weight. However, there is law in CA that states than an employer cannot discriminate against an employee because of a disability.  That begs the question — is obesity a disability?

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Filed under ADA, Disability Discrimination, Disabling Injury and Illness, FEHA – Fair Employment & Housing Act

I just got fired! I think it’s because I’m disabled…. Is that legal?

Discrimination is subtle. It’s never goes like: “We’re terminating your position because you can’t walk/have diabetes/have cancer/can’t hear….” No, no, no. Even stupid bosses usually aren’t that stupid.

It usually goes like this: “We’re letting you go.” That’s it.  Smart employers don’t give you a reason, they just fire. But it gets interesting when someone gets fired two months after being diagnosed with cancer, or after breaking major bones on their hand, after telling their boss that they’re depressed, get a serious back injury, or after major surgery.

The law in California prohibits disability discrimination. But what happens when you are fired, demoted, or refused a promotion for reasons seemingly unrelated to your disability? Do you just suck it up and try to find a new job? Well, yes, you should try to find a new job; but no, you shouldn’t put your tail between your legs and let your boss do that, especially if you suspect you were fired because of your disability.

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Filed under Disability Discrimination, FEHA – Fair Employment & Housing Act