California Court Shuts Courtroom Door on Employee Suing Her Employer for Firing Her in Retaliation for Filing a Workers’ Compensation Claim

The California Court of Appeal in Dutra v. Mercy Medical Center Mt. Shasta, 2012 Cal. App. LEXIS 1013 (Cal. App. 3d Dist. Sept. 26, 2012), has closed the courtroom door to plaintiffs seeking to sue their employers for firing them in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim, holding that such claims can be brought only before the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board and not in court.

In Dutra, the plaintiff worked for Mercy as a housekeeper and injured her back at work on January 31, 2008.  She filed a workers’ compensation claim that same day.  Less than two months later, on March 19, 2008, Mercy terminated plaintiff’s employment for, according to Mercy, “(1) continuing to gossip while on duty and after being counseled about it; (2) altering a check that had been issued to her from a discretionary fund provided by a religious order affiliated with the hospital, an action the letter referred to as ‘check fraud;’ and (3) falsifying her timecard and abandoning her post by leaving work without clocking out.”  The plaintiff thereafter filed a complaint in California state court alleging, among other things, that she was wrongfully terminated in violation of public policy for filing a workers’ compensation claim.

California Labor Code Section 132a extends certain anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation protections to employees who are injured in the course of their employment, including by making it a misdemeanor for an employer to fire or discriminate against an employee for filing a claim for workers’ compensation.  Under the statute, an employee who is found to have suffered discrimination or retaliation on account of filing a workers’ compensation complaint may obtain reinstatement, reimbursement of lost wages, an increase in compensation, and expenses.  The statute expressly grants the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) jurisdiction to remedy violations of Section 132a.

The Court in Dutra concluded that because Section 132a “vests the WCAB ‘with full power, authority, and jurisdiction to try and determine finally all matters specified in this section subject only to judicial review,’ . . . obviously, a trial court has no jurisdiction to hear a civil cause of action for an employer’s breach of Labor Code section 132a.”  The Court held:  “The statute establishes a specific procedure and forum for addressing a violation.  It also limits the remedies that are available once a violation is established.  Allowing plaintiff to pursue a tort cause of action based on a violation of section 132a would impermissibly give her broader remedies and procedures than that provided by the statute.  Thus, the statute cannot serve as the basis for a tort claim of wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and the trial court correctly granted Mercy’s motion to dismiss the action.”

Consequently, unless Dutra is reversed by the California Supreme Court, employees who believe they were fired in retaliation for filing a workers’ compensation claim must seek redress exclusively before the WCAB.  However, Dutra did not close the courtroom door on other claims that might be available to such employees.  For example, where there is evidence that the employer terminated or otherwise adversely treated an employee on account of a disability stemming from a work-related injury, the employee may still sue in Court for disability discrimination.  Because state court is a friendlier forum for employees, this remains an option that employees may continue to explore.

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Bernstein & Friedland, P.C. is a boutique employment law firm in Los Angeles specializing in wrongful termination, discrimination, harassment, retaliation, and unpaid wage and overtime matters.  Please visit our website at www.laemploymentcounsel.com to learn more about us.

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