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California Court of Appeal Holds that an Employee May Be Disciplined for Fabricating Sexual Harassment Allegations

Richard Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles(2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 1207

In Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles, the California Court of Appeal recently held that an employer may lawfully terminate an employee based on a good faith belief that the employee has filed a false sexual harassment complaint.

The Underlying Facts:

The case focused on an internal sexual harassment complaint filed by LAPD officer Richard Joaquin against his supervisor, Sergeant James Sands. The two officers had disputed whether Joaquin left his shift early, and Sands threatened to enter a negative counseling notation in Joaquin’s personnel file.

Joaquin later filed a sexual harassment complaint against Sands. During the resulting internal affairs interview, Joaquin alleged that Sands had asked him on a date, made comments about his body, and followed him on and off duty. The internal affairs department determined that Joaquin’s allegations were unfounded.

In response, Sands filed a complaint against Joaquin, alleging that Joaquin had retaliated against him by filing a false complaint. In contrast to Joaquin’s allegations, Sands’ allegations were sustained and his complaint was forwarded to the LAPD’s Board of Rights.

After a formal hearing, the Board concluded that Joaquin had fabricated his allegations and recommended his termination.

After the police chief adopted the Board’s recommendation, Joaquin successfully challenged his termination through a writ petition. In granting his writ and ordering reinstatement, the superior court held that the Board’s findings were not supported by the weight of the evidence.

Joaquin then sued the City of Los Angeles for retaliation, alleging that his termination was in retaliation for filing a sexual harassment complaint. The jury returned a verdict for Joaquin, and awarded him over two million dollars.

The Court of Appeal’s Reasoning:

The Court of Appeal reversed the judgment. The Court held that Joaquin was required to prove that the Board harbored unlawful retaliatory animus, and rejected his argument that he need prove only a casual link between his harassment complaint and termination. Specifically, the Court held that the question for the fact finder is whether the employer’s stated reason for discipline (i.e., that the employee was untruthful during an investigation) was pretext.

The Court adopted a line of federal authority under Title VII that a false report of discrimination or harassment may lawfully be a basis for discipline. See, e.g., Richey v. City of Independence (8th Cir. 2008) 540 F.3d 779; E.E.O.C. v. Total Systems Services, Inc. (“Total System“) (11th Cir. 2000) 221 F.3d 1191. In adopting this line of federal cases, the Second Appellate District wanted to prevent abuse of the complaint process.

“An employer is forbidden to discriminate against an employee who participates in an investigation of employment discrimination. But participation doesn’t insulate an employee from being discharged for conduct that, if it occurred outside an investigation, would warrant termination. [Citations.] This includes making frivolous accusations, or accusations grounded in prejudice. For it ‘cannot be true that a plaintiff can file false charges, lie to an investigator, and possible defame co-employees, without suffering repercussions simply because the investigation was about sexual harassment.’”

LEG Advisory:

Joaquin v. City of Los Angeles adopts the rule that fabricating a complaint regarding protected-status discrimination or harassment is not itself protected conduct. As a result, employers need not treat the filing of a protected-status complaint as insulating the complainant from workplace rules regarding honesty. We recommend that employers instruct all investigatory witnesses, in writing, that (1) they must tell the truth and (2) that dishonesty may result in discipline up to and including termination.

Follow this link to view the Court’s Opinion.