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Ignorance Is Not a Defense: California Employers Are Liable for the Discriminatory Acts of Their Supervisory Employees


National origin discrimination is strictly prohibited by federal and California state law. Employers are prohibited from firing, refusing to hire, or disciplining an employee or job applicant based on their country of origin or nationality. Nor can an employer escape liability simply by claiming it was unaware of any such discrimination on the part of its own managers or supervisors.

Hospital Faces Trial Over Supervisor’s Alleged Anti-Filipino Bias

A recent published decision from the California Third District Court of Appeal, Galvan v. Dameron Hospital Association, reiterates this critical point.

In this case, a registered nurse alleged she was the victim of harassment and discrimination on the basis of her Filipino origin. According to the nurse’s lawsuit, her immediate supervisor made repeated, critical remarks about her and other Filipino employees about their hospital. For example, the supervisor allegedly made constant negative remarks about the Filipino employees’ accents and that she “wanted to get rid of all of them.”

The nurse said the stress of dealing with the supervisor eventually led her to take medical leave. When the leave expired, the nurse did not return to work because she “was afraid she would be subject to the same type of harassment and intimidation” as before. The hospital responded by terminating the nurse’s employment.

The nurse subsequently filed her employment discrimination lawsuit, alleging she was “constructively discharged” as a result of the hospital’s refusal to put a stop to the supervisor’s discriminatory and abusive conduct. A trial court granted summary judgment to the hospital, however, finding there was no evidence that the employer “knew about [the supervisor’s] actions and failed to remedy them.” Put another way, the judge said the nurse failed to show there was a “nexus” between the alleged discrimination and her constructive discharge.

The Third District disagreed and reversed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. Among other reasons, the Court of Appeal said based on the evidence presented, a jury could find the nurse was “constructively discharged” for discriminatory reasons. Contrary to what the trial judge said, the plaintiff did not need to prove upper management at the hospital actually knew of the supervisor’s actions. Rather, California law only requires that knowledge of such discrimination “must exist on the part of the employer or those persons who effectively represent the employer, including supervisory employees.” Given a supervisory employee committed the alleged discrimination, that was enough to send the nurse’s case to trial.

Asserting Your Rights Under California Employment Law

When it comes to addressing workplace discrimination, you cannot rely on an employer’s internal HR system to come to your rescue. You must be prepared to independently assert your rights, if necessary by going to court. Of course, a lawsuit is always a last resort, and there are often other means of working with your employer to ensure their compliance with federal and state anti-discrimination laws.

If you need additional advice about your particular situation, consult with an experienced California employment law attorney.

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* Cathleen Scott is licensed to practice in Florida only.

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