Earlier this week, a state appellate court held that an employee failed to introduce substantial evidence under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) that his employer’s decision to terminate his employment was motivated by retaliatory animus. According to the California Court of Appeal, the employee, who was fired for allegedly making false statements related to his sexual harassment complaint against his supervisor, could not show that his employer’s stated reason for firing him was pretextual. Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles, No. B226685, California Court of Appeal (January 23, 2012).

Factual Background

On January 7, 2005, Richard Joaquin, a Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) police officer, was on duty when he and his supervisor, Sergeant James Sands, had a disagreement regarding when his shift was scheduled to end. Sands claimed that Joaquin did not return to the station as ordered. Joaquin, on the other hand, claimed that he returned to the station, went to the restroom, and then left for home when he saw other officers leaving because he believed that his shift had been dismissed.

That evening, Joaquin called an 800 number and anonymously reported that Sands had been sexually harassing him. He later made the same complaint to his lieutenant and the matter was turned over to Internal Affairs, which determined that the allegations were unfounded.

Sands then filed an official complaint against Joaquin. After an LAPD captain upheld Sands’ allegations, the matter proceeded to a Board of Rights hearing. The Board found that Joaquin had filed a false complaint and recommended that his employment be terminated. The Chief of Police adopted the recommendation and Joaquin was fired. Joaquin filed a petition for writ of mandate and the superior court ordered Joaquin reinstated.

Joaquin then filed suit against the City of Los Angeles alleging that he was wrongfully terminated in retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint against Sands. A jury agreed and awarded Joaquin over $2 million in damages and the City of Los Angeles appealed.

Legal Analysis

The California Court of Appeal first determined that the relevant issue “is whether an employee may be disciplined if his or her employer concludes that the employee has fabricated a claim of sexual harassment, or whether such a complaint is insulated from discipline even where, as here, the employer determines that it was fabricated.” The court concluded that an employer may discipline an employee for making false charges – even allegations of sexual harassment – as long as the employer’s stated reason for discipline was not pretextual.

With regard to Joaquin’s case, the Court of Appeal found no evidence that Sands played a role in the Internal Affairs investigation of his complaint. Moreover, the court found that Joaquin did not introduce evidence “that any member of the Board of Rights knew him or had a desire to retaliate against him.” Finally, the court rejected Joaquin’s claim that the Board overlooked evidence in his favor, finding that “there was virtually no evidence before the jury concerning the evidence presented to the Board.” Thus, the court reversed the judgment in favor of Joaquin.

Practical Impact

According to a shareholder in Ogletree Deakins’ Orange County office: “This is a substantial and welcome outcome – not only for the City of Los Angeles, but for all employers in California. The court has adopted a rule of absolute logic and reason – simply that an employer, acting in good faith, may discipline or terminate an employee for fabricating false claims, even where the claim is an allegation of sexual harassment. Fabrication, unlike age, race, national origin and other protected categories under Title VII and FEHA, is simply not a protected category.”

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