Rosa Lee Cardenas worked for M. Fanaian, D.D.S., Inc. as a dental hygienist. When Ms. Cardenas could not locate her wedding ring—she typically took it off while performing her job duties—she called the local police and reported that a coworker may have stolen her ring. After the police came to the workplace on two separate occasions, the employer pulled Ms. Cardenas aside and told her that “the situation was causing great tension and discomfort among the staff, and that he was going to have to let her go.” Cardenas filed a lawsuit alleging she was fired for reporting theft of her wedding ring. A jury agreed and awarded her $117,768 in damages. The lesson: Don’t fire employees for reporting theft at work.
Don’t Fire Employees for Reporting Theft
Fanaian appealed claiming the real reason Cardenas filed a police report was to serve her private interest, not a public purpose, and a termination in violation of public policy does not exist when the employee reports a purely personal issue (e.g., not something related to the employment). Cardenas claimed that Labor Code section 1102.5 stands alone, and does not require a separate showing that the employee’s subjective motivation and/or the particular crime he or she reported concerned a fundamental public policy. Cardenas pointed out that section 1102.5 embodies a sufficient public policy for purposes of permitting an award of damages.
The court of appeals agreed, and affirmed the judgment. “[T]he plain and unambiguous language of section 1102.5(b) creates a cause of action for damages against an employer who retaliates against an employee for reporting to law enforcement a theft of her property at the workplace.”
Anytime an employee reports a suspected crime to the police, he or she is possibly engaging in protected activity. Employers should be mindful that Labor Code section 1102.5 is very broad, and terminating an employee because the employee complained or made know his or her intention to complain to a government agency is unlawful. Fanaian learned the hard way not to fire employees for reporting theft of personal items at work.