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Monday, August 25, 2014

Hager v. County of Los Angeles: Court of Appeal Affirms Whistleblower Retaliation Judgment for Deputy Sheriff, Reverses on Damage Award

Hager v. County of Los Angeles (8/5/2014) concerns the standard for proving retaliation under Labor Code section 1102.5.

Plaintiff Darren Hager worked for the County of Los Angeles as a sheriff's deputy. He sued the County and Sheriff's Department (County) alleging that the County retaliated against him for reporting alleged unlawful conduct by another sheriff's deputy. After a jury reached a verdict for Hager, the County appealed from the judgment, and Hager appealed from a post-trial order denying his motion for attorney fees. The Court of Appeal affirmed in part and reversed in part, holding as follows:

In the context of public employment, neither Mize-Kurzman v. Marin Community College Dist. (2012) 202 Cal.App.4th 832, nor section 1102.5 supports a rule that only the first employee reporting alleged unlawful conduct is entitled to whistleblower protection. Slip op. at 10-15.

Whistleblower protection applies when the disclosure of information addresses the alleged wrongdoing of a fellow employee. Slip op. at 15-16.

The trial court did not abuse its discretion in excluding evidence of incidents in Hager's employment history unrelated to the County's stated reasons for terminating him or evidence as to previously undisclosed reasons for terminating him. Slip op. at 16-23. The trial court did not err in finding that such evidence had no probative value. Slip op. at 19-21. The trial court also did not err in finding that such evidence would be more prejudicial than probative under Evidence Code section 352. Slip op. at 21-23.

Even if evidence in the record would have supported a verdict in favor of the County, substantial evidence supported the jury's finding that the County terminated Hager in retaliation for reporting alleged misconduct. Slip op. at 24-26. Hager introduced evidence of inconsistencies and implausabilities in the County's stated reasons for terminating him, such that the jury could rationally find those reasons "unworthy of credence." Slip op. at 26.

Substantial evidence did not support the jury's award of lost earnings to Hager. In April 2003 -- prior to his termination -- Hager applied for and received medical disability retirement as a result of injuries suffered on the job. In light of this, Hager failed to introduce evidence at trial that he lost past wages as a result of the termination, and the evidence did not support the award of backpay. Slip op. at 27-30.

For the same reason, the jury's award of front pay was speculative. Hager failed to introduce evidence that he would have continued to earn his salary but for his termination. Slip op. at 30-31.

Finally, the trial court did not err in denying Hager's request for attorney fees under Code of Civil Procedure section 1021. 5. Slip op. at 39-42. Some actions benefit all public safety officers and the public at large, but Hager's action only benefited him and did not confer a significant benefit on the general public.

The opinion is available here.

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