Using Your Success in a Workers’ Compensation Case to Enhance Your Odds in Your California Discrimination Lawsuit

In any civil lawsuit, you have the potential to go up against well-funded opposition with powerful attorneys. To achieve a positive end, then, you must also be well equipped and ready to take on the other side. That includes making sure you have knowledgeable Oakland employment counsel on your side. You undoubtedly are intimately familiar with the facts of your discrimination case, but your skilled attorney can employ useful legal techniques on your behalf to strengthen your position and to stop your opposition from making arguments the law says aren’t allowed.

As an example, there is the case of T.F. T.F. worked as a counselor for an entity providing services to people with mental health disabilities. After 22 years with the employer, the counselor lost his job due to involuntary termination. Allegedly, the employer fired the counselor for performance-related reasons, including his improper personal use of employer equipment, requesting vacation leave “at the last minute,” excessive use of sick time, an inappropriately large number of phone calls at work, a failure to return voice mail messages and a failure to complete documentation on time.

The counselor, who was African-American, identified a different reason for his termination: his race. He asserted that supervisors treated him differently at staff meetings and gave him disciplinary punishments for violations that were not enforced against white employees.

After the firing, the counselor’s first step was to file a claim for worker’s compensation. That claim asserted that the employer’s discriminatory personnel actions had inflicted psychiatric injuries on the counselor. California law prohibits an award of benefits in this scenario if the employer’s personnel actions were “lawful, nondiscriminatory, good faith” ones, which was what T.F.’s employer argued. The worker’s compensation judge, however, ruled against the employer, concluding that what this employer did was not a “nondiscriminatory, good faith personnel action.”

The second step that T.F. took was to sue his employer for wrongful termination and race discrimination in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. Similar to worker’s compensation cases, a discrimination and wrongful termination case cannot succeed if the employer’s adverse actions against the terminated employee were legitimate, nondiscriminatory employment actions. As a result, the employer again tried to advance the argument that it had acted in a permissible, valid and nondiscriminatory fashion when it punished and eventually fired T.F.

What is ‘collateral estoppel’ and how can it help me?

This employer had a significant problem, however, which the counselor wisely pointed out and which is an important lesson for anyone else facing a situation like T.F.’s That problem was the worker’s compensation judge’s ruling in that previous case.

The law in California, and in every state, recognizes a legal concept that’s called “collateral estoppel.” Basically, what this concept means is that, if you have been given a full and fair opportunity to present an argument, and a judge has made a valid ruling on the merits deciding that issue against you, then you cannot attempt to re-litigate that same identical issue again in a later case.

What that meant for T.F.’s lawsuit, according to the appeals court, was that his employer was “estopped” (in other words, prohibited) from arguing that its personnel actions against T.F. were legitimate and nondiscriminatory. It was barred because it had made, and lost, that argument already in the worker’s compensation action. The employer was entitled to defend itself in the wrongful termination action, but it was forbidden from presenting any evidence that its actions were legitimate and nondiscriminatory. This, of course, would greatly enhance T.F.’s odds of success.

A strong knowledge of the law and legal concepts paid significant dividends for T.F. If you’ve litigating a discrimination action in California, put the power of legal knowledge and experience on your side. Contact the skilled Oakland employment attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. We have skill and determination you need, and we are here to talk to you about your situation. To learn more about what we can do for you, contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.