Workers’ compensation discrimination not “wrongful termination,” court rules

An esoteric distinction, but a firm one nonetheless. In Dutra v. Mercy Medical Center Mt. Shasta, an employee sued the hospital where she worked for defamation and wrongful termination in violation of California public policy. The employee, who worked as a housekeeper, made a workers’ compensation claim in January 2008 after she slipped while dragging a laundry bin across a snow-slicked alley. She was then fired in March 2008, after which she filed a lawsuit claiming wrongful termination in violation of California’s public policy of not allowing discrimination or retaliation against employees who make workers’ compensation claims, as established in California Labor Code Section 132a. Public policy wrongful termination claims, sometimes referred to as “Tameny” claims (after the case from which the claim originated), are common law tort claims that mirror claims already established by statute. For example, if a statute specifically prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, an employee fired because of race can make both a statutory claim and a claim wrongful termination because race discrimination violates fundamental public policy, as established by the statute. But in Dutra, the court held that employees cannot sue for wrongful termination on the basis of Labor Code Section 132a, which prohibits retaliation against employees who make workers’ compensation claims, because that statute specifically limits any such claims to the Workers’ Compensation Appeals Board (i.e., employees can only make 132a claims to the WCAB). According to the court, employees cannot have greater rights in wrongful termination claims than they have in the substantive statutory claims that the wrongful termination claims mirror. So because 132a limits claims only to the WCAB, employees cannot make an end-run by bringing wrongful termination claims in court.