A former 30-year employee received a multimillion-dollar jury verdict in a recent lawsuit against his old employer. The plaintiff, employed by a major insurance company, was awarded more than $2 million in compensatory damages and an additional $16 million in punitive damages when it was found that the company violated California state law when terminating him.
The plaintiff had worked for the company for three decades before termination. Several years ago, the plaintiff was involved in a domestic altercation with his ex-girlfriend. He was arrested and charged with two counts of domestic violence. The charges were subsequently dropped.
Upon learning of the arrests, the company conducted an internal investigation of the matter and, at first, found no reason to terminate employment. Later, after his ex-girlfriend alleged that he had physically threatened her, the company terminated him. It claimed that it was an employment-at-will contract. In addition, the company claimed that its policy called for termination for those 'who engage in threats or acts of physical harm or violence."
California law prohibits termination based on a criminal arrest as opposed to a criminal conviction. In this case, the employee was never convicted of a crime. Arrests are not a final adjudication of the alleged conduct, nor are criminal charges. This may have been a turning point in the case.
An employment-at-will contract means the employer may fire an employee without having to give a reason. However, there are public policies and considerations that override a contract of this type. When these policy considerations are codified into state or federal laws or regulations, the law supersedes employment at will.
If an employer terminates an employee for a reason forbidden by state or federal law, the worker may have an actionable wrongful termination suit. In these instances, contacting an experienced employment law attorney is a necessity.
Source:San Diego TribuneSan Diego jury awards ex-Allstate staffer $18M+ in wrongful termination caseTeri Figueroa, May 4, 2018