9th Circuit Issues Wrongful Termination Decision

In Santillan v. USA Waste of California, Inc.a 53-year old garbage truck driver filed an action against his employer of 32 years alleging a wrongful termination claim based on age discrimination and retaliation.  Gilberto Santillan (“Santillan”) had an exemplary employee record and was rarely disciplined during his first 30 years at USA Waste of California, Inc. (“USA Waste”).  However, after USA Waste assigned Steve Kobzoff as Santillian’s new manager in January 2009, Mr. Kobzoff attempted to discipline Santillian six times between then and July 2010.  Then in 2011, USA Waste terminated Santillan for having four accidents in a 12-month period.  Pursuant to the collective bargaining agreement, Santillan filed a formal grievance against USA Waste challenging his termination.

Following a public outcry and after receiving hundreds of letters from Manhattan Beach homeowners demanding Santillan be reinstated, USA Waste agreed to reinstate Santillan’s employment if he dismissed the grievance and passed the California Department of Transportation drug test and physical exam, a criminal background check, and “e-Verify”.  Santillan completed almost every condition but was unable to provide documentation of his eligibility to work in the U.S. within three days of his reinstatement.  As a result, Santillian was terminated for the second time.  The lawsuit ensued and the District Court granted USA Waste’s motion for summary judgement.  On April 7, 2017, a unanimous panel of the Ninth Circuit reversed the ruling.

Rules Regulating Wrongful Termination Claims

In non-mixed motive cases, California wrongful termination claims in violation of public policy are analyzed under the McDonnell Douglas’s three-prong burden-shifting analysis:

  • Employee must establish a prima facie case under either an age discrimination or retaliation theory.  If an employee can meet this requirement, there is a presumption of discrimination.
  • The burden of production then shifts to the employer to rebut the presumption by production admissible evidence that it had a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for its adverse employment action.
  • If the employer satisfies its burden, then the employee must show the reasons advanced by the employer constitutes mere pretext or produce other evidence of intentional discrimination.

McDonnell Douglas Corp. v. Green, 411 U.S. 792 (1973).  An employee in an employment discrimination action need produce very little evidence in order to overcome an employer’s motion for summary judgement.  To established a prima facie age discrimination case, an employee must establish that:

1) he was a member of a protected class (i.e., 40 years of age or older);

2) he was performing competently in the position he held;

3) he suffered an adverse employment action, such as termination; and

4) “some other circumstance that suggests discriminatory motive.”

The Ninth Circuit held the district court erred in finding Santillan could not establish the fourth element.  Santillan’s testimony that he was one of five older Spanish speaking employees fired or suspended by the new manager, and the potential 13-year gap between Santillan and his replacement, who also had 21 fewer years of experience, established a motive to discriminate.

With the burden now shifted to USA Waste, the Ninth Circuit held USA Waste failed to rebut the presumption that Santillan was unlawfully discriminated against because it did not offer a legitimate reason for firing Santillan.  Despite the requirements of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (“IRCA”) or Santillan’s agreement to pass “e-Verify”, two IRCA regulations exempted Santillan from providing employment eligibility documents.  The first exempted Santillan from having to provide proof of employment eligibility because he was continuing his employment after being reinstated pursuant to the settlement agreement with USA Waste.  The second was a “grandfather” provision for employees hired before 1986 that exempts them from the employment eligibility verification requirements applicable at the hiring stage.  Furthermore, the Ninth Circuit held that requiring Santillan to verify his immigration status as a condition to his reinstatement would violate California public policy.  California Labor Code section 1171.5 provides that all remedies available under state law, except as prohibited by federal law, are available to all individuals regardless of immigration status.  Federal law did not prohibit Santillan’s reinstatement because it was a result of a settlement agreement and therefore, in this situation, immigration status was irrelevant in the enforcement of California labor and employment laws.

Context Matters

 In this case, the employer’s decision to termination a 53-year old employee with an exemplary employment history was a risky decision.  While a company may have justifiable reasons to terminate an employee, if not done in the correct manner and with suggestions that the employee was discriminated against, a company may encounter litigation similar to the situation described above.  It is imperative for every company to have the correct hiring and firing policies in place to avoid these kinds of costly lawsuits.

At The Royse Law Firm our team of employment law attorneys can help guide your company through the wide array of employment issues.  Contact us today if you are a California business looking for guidance or are involved in an employment dispute.

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