Parks and Wrecked: State Loses Argument that California Employee Can’t Pursue Both Workers’ Compensation and Civil Claims

Ocotillo WellsAn allegedly “toxic” workplace in the San Diego County desert produced multiple lawsuits and, recently, a very important ruling from the California Court of Appeal. A state Parks and Recreation worker, who allegedly was intimidated so badly that she developed PTSD and a panic disorder, was, according to the recent ruling, entitled to pursue her civil lawsuit, rather than just file for workers’ compensation benefits. Since the alleged misconduct also amounted to a Fair Employment and Housing Act violation, that meant that the woman’s supervisor had stepped outside her proper role, which freed up the plaintiff to pursue her case in civil court.

According to certain employee lawsuits, the state Department of Parks and Recreation office at Ocotillo Wells had numerous problems with sexual and other forms of harassment. One worker, Delane, filed a lawsuit claiming that her supervisor, Lisa, loved to regale Delane and others with stories about the men she was sleeping with (or desired to sleep with) and demanded that Delane reciprocate with similar stories about the women in Delane’s sex life.

Delane’s complaint triggered an official investigation. Allegedly, Lisa ordered her subordinates, including a woman, Melony, to lie to the investigators. According to Melony’s lawsuit, Lisa stated that Melony should protect her and other supervisors and that, if she didn’t, “your career will be over.”

The hostility and intimidation employed by the supervisor, which included both verbal and physical confrontations, was so great that it caused Melony to develop PTSD and panic disorder, according to the employee’s complaint.

In Melony’s lawsuit, she alleged multiple violations of the FEHA, as well as intentional infliction of emotional distress. The employer argued, and the trial court agreed, that the employee could not pursue an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim. The law only allows an employee to seek workers’ compensation benefits for this alleged harm, rather than to pursue a civil lawsuit, the court ruled.

The Court of Appeal, however, reversed that ruling. There are many types of actions, including actions that form the basis for a claim of intentional infliction of emotional distress, that a worker may be barred from using in a civil lawsuit because the exclusivity provision of workers’ compensation law prohibits it. The law does, however, recognize a few exceptions to that exclusivity bar on civil lawsuits. Even if your harm “is otherwise compensable under the workers’ compensation system,” you may still be able to sue in court.

The courts have previously ruled that, in “some exceptional circumstances the employer is not free from liability at law for his intentional acts even if the resulting injuries to his employees are compensable under workers’ compensation.” These may include situations in which employers “stepped out of their proper roles.” One example of stepping outside the bounds of a proper role is when the harm of which the employee complains (as intentional infliction of emotional distress) is also something that amounts to a FEHA violation. In Melony’s case, she contended that the behavior underlying the intentional infliction of emotional distress – mistreatment as a result of Melony’s refusal to lie in the investigation into Delane’s complaint — was something that, if proven true, could amount to a violation of the FEHA’s prohibitions against discrimination and retaliation, which meant that the exclusivity rule did not bar her civil case, and she should be allowed to proceed.

In a great many situations, the exclusivity rule of workers’ compensation blocks a wide array of civil lawsuits. It does not, however, prohibit everything. Never just assume that you have no case. First, talk to knowledgeable counsel. The Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch are here to help. Our team is dedicated to helping workers who’ve suffered harm as a result of supervisor misconduct and other forms of FEHA violations. To learn more about how we can help you, contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blog Posts:

California Pharmacy Tech Gets New Opportunity to Pursue Emotional Distress Damages in Wrongful Termination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, May 12, 2017

Ninth Circuit Revives County Employee’s Case Because Sheriff’s Hugs Could Amount to Harassment, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, April 27, 2017