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Forced to Quit Due to COVID-19 Concerns: California Judge Allows Ex-Detention Center Officer to Pursue Constructive Discharge Claim

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The COVID-19 pandemic has put many frontline workers in a terrible quandary: either they go to work and face contracting a potentially fatal disease–which they may then spread to their household and community–or quit and deal with the loss of income. Making matters worse is that many employers have not taken adequate steps to safeguard workers on the jobsite.

Private Prison Operator Accused of Failing to Protect Employees, Detainees

Indeed, there have already been a number of lawsuits filed around the country against employers who have effectively forced their employees to quit due to inadequate health and safety standards. Many of these lawsuits have targeted private contractors that operate jails and other government detention facilities. On September 4, 2020, a federal judge overseeing one of these cases issued an order allowing a former prison employee to proceed with her “constructive discharge” claim against her ex-employer.

The plaintiff in the case (Brooks v. CORECIVIC OF TENNESSEE LLC, Dist. Court, SD California 2020)

worked as a detention officer for the Otay Mesa Detention Center near San Diego. The plaintiff’s lawsuit noted this particular facility was chronically understaffed–to the point where she was commonly responsible for “overseeing more than 100 detainees at a time.” More to the point, after the outbreak of COVID-19, the plaintiff alleged Otay Mesa management “failed to adequately respond” to the pandemic. Specifically, she alleged the company failed to provide personal protective equipment to staff, failed to properly clean and sanitize the facility, and in fact prohibited employees from “wearing masks in certain areas of the facility.”

At the end of March 2020, the plaintiff said her supervisor told her to remove a mask even while guarding a detainee who had tested positive for tuberculosis. The plaintiff said she was told masks were not required under then-current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the plaintiff learned shortly thereafter that a co-worker had contracted COVID-19. By the end of May, “approximately 234 detainees and 30 staff members had tested positive for the virus” at Otay Mesa.At that point, the plaintiff resigned.

She subsequently filed a lawsuit in federal court against the operator of Otay Mesa. Among other claims, the plaintiff alleged the defendant engaged in “wrongful constructive termination in violation of public policy.” In layperson’s terms, the plaintiff alleged she was basically forced to quit due to unsafe working conditions.

The defendant moved to dismiss the lawsuit. But as noted above, the judge denied the motion with respect to the constructive discharge claim. In her September 4, 2020 order (ORDER GRANTING IN PART AND DENYING IN PART DEFENDANT’S MOTION TO DISMISS), U.S. District Judge Dana M. Sabraw noted that “whether the workplace conditions alleged by Plaintiff at the time of her resignation were so intolerable that a reasonable person in Plaintiff’s position would have had no reasonable alternative except to resign is inherently fact-bound.” Certainly the plaintiff’s allegations, if proven, “could amount to intolerable working conditions.” It was therefore inappropriate to dismiss the case at this stage of the litigation.

Have You Been Affected by COVID-19 in Your Workplace?

We are likely to see more cases like this as the full effects of COVID-19 continue to impact every sector of California’s economy. If you have been forced to quit your own job due to concerns over an employer’s handling of the pandemic, it is important to seek out advice from an experienced California employment law attorney as to your potential rights.

https://www.employmentrightscalifornia.com/california-expands-ab-5-exemptions-to-cover-more-professional-and-entertainment-services/

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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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