Articles Posted in California Employment Law

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A former teacher in Illinois has prevailed over his erstwhile employer in court. Bruce Vukadinovich sued the Hanover Community School Corp. for age discrimination, retaliation and violation of due process. Although the court rejected the discrimination and retaliation claims, Vukadinovich was awarded more than $200,000 for the due process claim.

you-are-firedThe story began years ago in a different school district. Back then, Vukadinovich was working for Hammond Schools when he filed a lawsuit against his employer for age discrimination. That lawsuit was settled, and the plaintiff went on to Hanover Central High School. He worked there for eight years until his contract was terminated in a workforce reduction. Vukadinovich sought answers from the district about why he was fired, but couldn’t get a straight answer. That’s when he filed the lawsuit against the Hanover Community School Corp.

The wrinkle is that a school district official who worked for Hammond Schools when Vukadinovich sued that district had recently transferred over to the Hanover Community School Corp. Vukadinovich believed that his firing was an act of retaliation over his earlier successful suit against Hammond Schools.

Several years of litigation followed, with Vukadinovich representing himself against his former employer. A jury and a judge ultimately agreed with the plaintiff that he was denied due process. In his decision, Judge Philip Simon wrote: “To put it bluntly, after several years of presiding over this litigation, including a five day jury trial, I cannot tell you why Vukadinovich was terminated.” The judge went on to say that the jury sympathized with Vukadinovich’s desire to receive a “straight-forward explanation” for his firing.

The judge also took issue with the school district’s claim that they didn’t tell Vukadinovich why he was terminated because he didn’t ask. Arguing that the situation was “not a game of ‘Guess the Reason You’re Being Fired,'” Simon pointed out that the reason should have been disclosed up front so that Vukadinovich could have defended himself.

This case demonstrates the importance of keeping documentation citing all of the reasons for an adverse employment action. Doing so may prevent a lawsuit from being filed.

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The embattled Fox News network now has another lawsuit to add to its list of legal woes. Employee Diana Falzone has filed a lawsuit in the New York State Supreme Court. In her complaint, she charges her employer with discrimination on the basis of gender and disability.

Gender-Discrimination-105366239-001Falzone was employed as a host of programming on FoxNews.com. In January 2017, she published an article that chronicled her battle with endometriosis. This difficult condition affects millions of women across the U.S. Falzone wrote and published the article at the encouragement of the medical team that treats her, feeling that sharing the story of her struggle might provide support to other women with the condition.

Falzone alleges in her complaint that her employer knew about and approved the article prior to its publication. However, three days after publishing her article, Falzone was called in to talk to her supervisor. He told her that senior Fox executives had ordered him to tell her that she would never again host her own shows and that she was no longer permitted to appear on FoxNews.com. Additionally, senior executives forbade her from conducting interviews, appearing on the Fox television network and doing voiceover work for the station.

Falzone alleges that she demanded to know several times why her activities were being restricted, but never received a cogent answer. A formal discrimination complaint filed through the 21st Century Fox hotline did not yield results. That was when Falzone hired a lawyer and filed a lawsuit.

Falzone contends that Fox executives believed that the public disclosure of her illness “detracted from her sex appeal and made her less desirable,” thus leading them to ban her from maintaining her public role with the network.

Fox News has made headlines several times over the last year, mostly with regard to various discrimination and harassment lawsuits as well as the ouster of network chief Roger Ailes. Though their example may seem a bit extreme, it still serves as a crucial reminder to organizations in all industries to ensure that they are complying with all laws related to workplace discrimination and harassment.

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In general, most employers are happy to grant reasonable accommodations under the Americans with Disabilities Act. This does not mean that there aren’t limits to which an employer is willing to go. What’s more, employers are by no means obligated to grant every request for ADA accommodation that they receive.

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As an example, consider the case of a librarian employed at Florida Atlantic University. The librarian had suffered from epileptic seizures since childhood, and she had long known that stress aggravated her condition. In an EEOC claim and a lawsuit that she eventually filed against her employer, she asserted that the university had failed to acquiesce in her requests for reasonable workplace accommodations. It seemed that the librarian thoroughly disliked her supervisor’s management style, and that the stress she suffered on the job caused her to have more frequent seizures.

Although her employer accommodated some of her requests, such as ensuring that there were no sharp corners in her cubicle, they declined to grant other requests. They denied requests related to the “rough or harsh” treatment that she alleged came from her supervisor. She demanded that he be ordered to cease the “series of hostile confrontations,” which she said that he repeatedly used with her and that the university find a way to “sensitize” him to the needs of women with epilepsy.

The university did not feel compelled to grant the requests that they believed were vague and difficult to define, and the courts agreed with them. In testimony, the plaintiff could not cite specific instances of confrontational behavior. Moreover, the court argued that it was not the responsibility of the employer to provide a work environment that was free of stress, and that it was not possible for the plaintiff to “immunize herself from stress and criticism.”

This outcome demonstrates that employers are well within their rights to refuse requests for accommodations under ADA when they are not specific and reasonable. Nonetheless, it is crucial that all such requests be thoroughly investigated, preferably under the guidance of legal counsel, to ensure that a legitimate request is not ignored.