When employer gives false reasons for discriminatory firing
Cesar Astorga worked as a maintenance supervisor at Snap-On Logistics Co., a power tools manufacturer. In 2002, while working, Cesar’s knees were injured when he fell from a scissor lift. He was absent from work a total of 9 1/2 months. In 2009, a 100-pound motor at work fell on him, further aggravating his knee injuries. He again went on a leave of absence from April 2009 through February 2011. He underwent a total of four right-knee surgeries and 3 left-knee surgeries.
At first, the company accommodated Cesar’s work restrictions and provided him a golf cart to use to get around the large facility. However, the employer later changed its policy and no longer allowed employees to return to work if they have medical work restrictions.
When Cesar returned to work from his recent leave, he was demoted from his supervisor position and placed under the supervision of the employee hired to replace him during his medical leave. However, since Cesar knew more about the machines at the facility, the new supervisor often asked him about the work. Cesar claimed that when he asked for a full paycheck, his supervisor had told him that Snap-On did not want to pay him a full paycheck when he was only “half a man.”
In the spring of 2011, he told his employer that he was going to need another surgery and a leave of absence beginning in April. Two weeks later employer fired Cesar for allegedly accepting money from contractors.
Cesar sued the employer for wrongful termination based on disability discrimination, among others. During the litigation, the employer provided an additional reason for Cesar’s firing — that Snap-On had conducted an investigation without Cesar’s knowledge and allegedly found that Cesar was soliciting bribes from vendors. However, the vendor denied this. The only “evidence” the employer had of Cesar accepting a bribe was the testimony of the supervisor and the company comptroller, who said the vendor had admitted the bribery to them.
During trial, the supervisor and the comptroller gave several different versions of the alleged bribery. Because of inconsistent stories, neither witness seemed credible.
It was obvious that the employer wanted to get rid of Cesar and had to come up with an excuse to fire him. However, the facts surrounding the firing seem to point to employer’s reason as simply pretext.
A “pretext” is an alleged purpose or motive that an employer adopts in order to hide its real intention. In most discrimination cases, one of the most important hurdles an employee needs to overcome is to show that the employer’s stated reason for the firing is false. The employer’s pretext is merely to hide its real motive, which is discrimination.
There are several methods to prove pretext. One is to show that the employee was treated differently compared with other employees who had a similar issue (e.g. employees were not usually fired for this reason). Another is to show how the employer reacted to the employee’s situation (e.g. employer was upset when employee asked for leave). Or the employee can show how the employer treated her/him in relation to their disability (e.g. employer assigned employee to harder tasks, unusual schedules, or made derogatory comments about the employee’s condition).
Where an employee successfully shows that the employer’s reason for the firing is pretext, the employee comes one step closer to showing that the termination was illegal.
In Cesar’s case, after a three-week trial, the jury found in favor of Cesar and awarded him $5 million in compensatory damages, and $10 million in punitive damages, for a total award of $15 million.
The Law Offices of C. Joe Sayas, Jr. welcomes inquiries about this topic. All inquiries are confidential and at no-cost. You can contact the office at (818) 291-0088 or visit www.joesayaslaw.com or our Facebook page Joe Sayas Law. [C. Joe Sayas, Jr., Esq. is an experienced trial attorney who has successfully recovered wages and other monetary damages for thousands of employees and consumers. He was named Top Labor & Employment Attorney in California by the Daily Journal, consistently selected as Super Lawyer by the Los Angeles Magazine, and is the recipient of PABA’s Community Champion Award for 2016.]