Here is one common mistake that an employees who is falsely accused of stealing or fraud or any other serious violation at work make – he gets angry and he confronts his manager. Sometimes this confrontation takes place by e-mail and sometimes in person. Besides denying the allegations, the accused employees tells the employer that there is a conspiracy against him at work, that he is being framed on purpose, that the management is corrupt and they are just trying to screw him out of the job.
Although the above frustration and response to false accusations is understandable, it’s never a good idea to respond that way for several reasons:
1. In most cases, false accusations at work are not illegal, as unfair and as hurtful they might be. Even if you are suspended or even terminated based false accusations of fraud, theft or any other violations, this will not give rise a wrongful termination case except in limit, specific circumstances, where you may have valid defamation claim due to those accusations. This means, that arguing or threatening your employer with suing them is probably not a good idea.
2. If there is an opportunity to clear your name, it will certainly not be accomplished by sending angry e-mails or arguing your managements in an attempt to prove that you are right and you are wrong. You are much better off remaining calm and courteous at all times. Avoid finger pointing or accusing others of conspiring against you. Trying to convince your management that the only reason you are accused of something is because someone is trying to screw you, you usually unproductive and will hurt your chances of proving your point and not being fired much more than help.
Instead, fully cooperate with any investigation. Be completely open and transparent with your employer and help the see for themselves that you haven’t done anything wrong through objective facts rather than arguments. If you really didn’t do anything wrong, this shouldn’t be difficult.
As mentioned earlier, in some cases a false accusation against you may give rise to a legitimate defamation claim (slander/libel) and wrongful termination. Often, your manager might falsely accuse you and defame you in retaliation for your discrimination or harassment complaints in an attempt to get you fired or at least disciplined. You should consult with an experienced employment attorney to determine whether filing a defamation lawsuit is a good idea in your specific situation.
One of the more important cases discussing retaliation protection for employees and specfically what it means to engage in a “protected activity” is the US Supreme Court’s decision in Crawford v. Metropolitan Gov’t of Nashville (2009). In that case, a 30-year employee was interviewed as part of the investigation into sexual harassment allegations against one of the directors. She shared with the investigator that the same director also sexually harassed her. The employer took no action against the director-harasser. However, the employer soon fired Crawford for allegedly engaging in embezzlement.
One of the key disputes issues in the case was whether Crawford’s participating in the investigation constituted a “protected activity” within the meaning of anti-retaliation law. The employer argued that “opposing” within the meaning of the law means actively complaining about harassment, rather than answering questions when being approached and interviewed.
The US Supreme Court rejected the employer’s argument, concluding that a person can “oppose” by responding to someone else’s questions just as surely as by provoking that discussion. The Court noted that nothing in the anti-retaliation statute requires a rule protecting an employee who reports discrimination on her own initiative but not one who reports the same discrimination or harassment in the same words when asked a question.
Holding otherwise, the Court mentioned, would have a chilling effect on discrimination/harassment investigations and would discourage employees from answering the same questions truthfully. After all, if answering questions about harassment and discrimination allegations would not be a protected activity, this would give a good reason to employees to keep quiet in order to avoid the risk of being retaliated by their employer.
Any employee who suffers discrimination or retaliation as a result of filing a workers compensation claim in California should remember that he generally may have an option of bringing two different claims: (1) the 132(a) claim for retaliation at the Workers Compensation Appeals Board and (2) Wrongful termination/disability discrimination case under ADA/FEHA in court. Under City of Moorpark v Sup. Ct. (1998), an employee bringing a 132(a) claim is not precluded from having a court action for the same underlying violation.
The advantage of bringing the discrimination/wrongful termination claim in addition to 132(a) case is the additional damages available in wrongful termination cases, which are not available in 132(a) claims. Further, having two cases against the same employer increases the pressure on the employer to settle all claims, since they have to defend both claims and spend money on attorneys on two claims, rather than just one. These two claims would be, of course, in addition to the workers compensation claim itself which would compensate an employee for the underlying industrial injury suffered.
In 2011, the US Supreme Court held in Kasten v Saint-Gobain Performance Plastics Corporation (2011) that even oral complaints by employees about not being properly compensated constitute a protected activity within the meaning of anti-retaliation laws. In that case, the plaintiff brought a retaliation lawsuit against his employer under section 213(a)3 of the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA). The claim was based on the fact that Plaintiff was terminated shortly after complaining to his management about the location of the time clocks, which prevent him and his co-workers from claiming time and being compensated for the time spent putting on uniform before performing his job duties and taking uniform off after performing the job duties (i.e. the time clock was located between the area where the employees were changing and the area where they were actually performing their duties.
The court analyzed the language of section 213 and reasoned that it forbids employers from terminating any employee because such employee has “filed any complaint”. The Court interpreted “any” to include both written and oral complaints. The Court also found the Defendants’ argument that “filed” means referring to a written complaint only to not be persuasive, and concluded that when the legislature included the term “filed” into the law, it did not intend to mean that it had to be filed in writing, but the complaint only had to be made.
One of the advantages of a retaliation claim from an employee-plaintiff perspective is the fact that even if you can’t prove the underlying harassment or discrimination claim, you might still be able to prove the retaliation claim. A recent case McCoy v Pacific Mar. Ass’n (2013) is a classic example of that situation. In that case, an employee McCoy, who was working as a marine clerk filed a discrimination lawsuit. After the lawsuit was settled, she claimed that during the job training that took place afterwards, the vessel planners retaliated against her by giving her a less desirable room, which increased her isolation from the rest of the vessel planning staff. She presented additional evidence of retaliation in a form of sexual harassment during training.
Although the court actually rejected the jury’s substantial verdict to McCoy on discrimination claims, the court found that there was substantial evidence supporting the conclusion that the employer unlawfully retaliated against McCoy for engaging in a protected activity, and that the retaliation resulted in material alteration of the terms and conditions for her employment.
There two main ways that an employer may retaliate against a terminated employee. The first one is challenging the terminated employee’s unemployment benefits application by trying to argue that the employee was terminated for misconduct. In many, if not most, cases that employee should be able to prevail, showing during the application process or at the unemployment benefits appeal hearing that the employer cannot meet the burden of proving that the employee was terminated for misconduct, and therefore the unemployment benefits should be awarded.
The second common way in which employers retaliate is by giving negative references to the terminated employee’s prospective employers. While merely suspecting that the reason you can’t get a job is because of the negative references from one of your previous employers, it is really worth make sure that the suspected employer does not engage in that kind of unethical and generally unlawful practice. The best way to start is to user the service of one of the major reference check agencies. Just google “reference check” and you will find a number of companies who, for a modest fee, will call your former employer, pretending that they are your prospective employer. The agency representative will ask all the right questions and then will let you know exactly what the employer said about you. If the employer doesn’t say anything bad about you, then you will know that they are most likely not the reason you weren’t able to get job. If they are saying something bad about you, then you can consider what legal steps you can take to make them stop defaming you.