The State of California is notorious for its liberal, pro-employee court system and complex employment regulations. Labor laws in California typically favor employees, and employers have paid billions in settlements for a range of violations, such as wage and hour infractions, discrimination and wrongful termination. However, several high profile court cases in California recently favored the employer, providing some relief to the constant barrage of employment lawsuits.
In one case, a mentally troubled employee made threatening remarks to other employees working for the City of Orange County, California. She was fired, and sued for disability discrimination. The Appellate Court ruled in favor of the employer, stating that an employer may discipline an employee for engaging in threats or violence against coworkers, even when that behavior is caused by the employee's disability.
The good news for employers is that if an employee is violent, makes threatening statements, or is in clear violation of company policy, they should not be afraid to take action out of fear of violating disability discrimination – their obligation to maintain a safe work environment for the other employees takes precedence.
In the next case, a California-based employee was caught using a company computer for personal use, in particular to make contact with an attorney on private matters. The employer found the emails and later used the content against the employee in court. The case moved its way through the California court system, and was eventually heard by the United States Supreme Court. The High Court found in favor of the employer, explaining that where an employer has a policy that e-mail can be inspected at any time, employees do not have a reasonable expectation of privacy in their company email account.
In a third case, a police department in the Municipality of Ontario, California gave employees pagers on which text messages could be sent. It later reviewed the messages – many of which were personal and sexually explicit – to determine why monthly use was so high. The Supreme Court held that, even assuming that the employees had a reasonable expectation of privacy in the messages, review of those messages did not violate the Fourth Amendment. The government employer's search was motivated by a legitimate work-related purpose and was not excessive in scope, and therefore was reasonable under existing precedent. Similar to the previous case, the US Supreme Court determined that employers are permitted to check emails and text pagers if they were work-related searches.
Finally, in one of the most anticipated lawsuits of the year, 1.6 million female employees of Wal-Mart claimed they worked in a culture of gender discrimination. They filed a class action lawsuit against Wal-Mart, the largest sexual harassment lawsuit in history! The California Ninth Circuit of Appeals court found in favor of the class action, and the case was brought to the US Supreme Court. The Supreme Court overturned the Ninth Circuit, stating that the employees had the right to pursue their own personal lawsuits, but that the class action lacked "common elements".
While there is not doubt that labor laws in California still lean towards the employee, employers operating in the state can breath a slight sigh of relief in light of these recent court decisions. A word of caution, however, to never let your guard down when it comes to employment practices. Unfortunately, the chances are relatively high that the next California employment lawsuit is just around the corner.