It is well-settled in California that an employer is prohibited from retaliating against an employee who makes a complaint to a government or law enforcement agency. Indeed, California Labor Code section 1102.5 makes it illegal for a California employer to discharge, demote, suspend or discipline in any manner an employee who provides information to a government or law enforcement agency where the employee has reasonable cause to believe that the information discloses a violation or noncompliance with a state or federal statute, rule, or regulation (otherwise known as a protected activity).
The employees who share this information are commonly referred to as whistleblowers. A whistleblower complaint often involves an employee complaining about the conduct of his or her employer, such as a nurse complaining about a doctor to the Medical Board or a pilot reporting potential violations of regulations to the Federal Aviation Administration.
A recent California case, Cardenas v. M. Fanaian, DDS, Inc., takes Labor Code section 1102.5, specifically subsection (b) one step further, holding that it does not only apply to an employer’s business operations, but also to matters unrelated to the employer’s compliance with law in operating its business, such as employee reports to law enforcement involving personal matters.
In Cardenas, Ms. Cardenas worked as a dental hygienist. For her 25th wedding anniversary, her husband bought her a new wedding ring. Ms. Cardenas always wore the ring to work, and one day, she left the ring on a table with her other personal belongings when it disappeared.
Ms. Cardenas believed a coworker had stolen her ring and informed her employer that she was going to file a police report against the coworker. In order to keep the peace in the office, her employer attempted to dissuade her from doing so. Ms. Cardenas filed the report anyway, and her employer told her she was “making the situation worse.” Within a few weeks, and after a few visits from the police, the employer let Ms. Cardenas go due to the tension and discomfort the situation was causing among the staff.
The Court of Appeal supported Ms. Cardenas’ belief that she was retaliated against for reporting the theft to the police, holding that the situation fit the plain language of Section 1102.5(b), which prohibits employers from retaliating against an employee for reporting a violation of a state or federal statute to a government or law enforcement.
What does this case mean for California employers? First, employers should consider the potential liability for a retaliation claim, even when the complaint does not directly relate to any unlawful activity by the employer. Second, before taking any action, speak to your legal counsel about the best course of action.
For more information, contact experienced business attorney Drew E. Pomerance today.