The California Supreme Court heard oral arguments April 2, 2014, in an appeal brought by a former employee who claims the lower courts incorrectly determined that his disability discrimination claim was barred because he misappropriated someone else’s Social Security number to apply for the position.
The employee filed suit against his former employer, Sierra Chemical Co., under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), asserting that Sierra terminated his employment because he was disabled. During the litigation, Sierra learned that the employee was not work-authorized and had used someone else’s Social Security number when applying for the position, at least the latter of which would have precluded his employment had Sierra known about it at the time. The employer argued, and the lower courts agreed, that this discovery, referred to as “after-acquired evidence,” not only precluded recovery of lost wages from the moment it learned of the misconduct but barred the employee’s claims under the “unclean hands” doctrine, which states that a party who engaged in improper conduct in relation to the subject of the lawsuit, in this case employment, is not entitled to recovery.
Although employers have successfully raised similar defenses to federal discrimination claims, the employee emphasized California’s strong workplace laws that offer certain protections to undocumented immigrant workers. Despite this argument, the California justices expressed skepticism, asking whether his position, if adopted by the court, would give undocumented workers more rights than those with work authorization.
The court’s ruling, due on July 1, 2014, will provide California employers with critical guidance not only on their legal defenses if sued under FEHA in similar circumstances, but whether, and to what extent, California’s strong worker protection laws limit their ability to terminate the employment of those who engage in such misconduct.
Salas v. Sierra Chemical Co., Calif., No. S196568 (oral argument, April 2, 2014).
Michael J. Lehet is an attorney in the Chicago office of Littler Mendelson. Reprinted with permission. © 2014 Littler Mendelson All rights reserved.
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