Hot Yoga and Cold Law: Employment Retaliation Claims Can Arise Anywhere

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Most people would agree that working in a government office that supervises lawyers is quite different than working in a 104 degree “hot yoga” studio. But recent matters involving these two very different work environments show that employment retaliation claims can be asserted against any employer – whether you’re a yoga master or the master of all lawyers in California.

The California State Bar has the staid mission of regulating the admission of attorneys and investigating assertions of attorney misconduct. Yet in November 2015, the State Bar found itself charged with wrongful employment retaliation after it fired one of its top managers, John Noonen. Noonen asserted that the termination was retaliatory because, just a few weeks earlier, he submitted a 40-page internal complaint against the State Bar’s top attorney for allegedly failing to properly investigate complaints against the president of the State Bar. The State Bar has denied Noonen’s retaliation allegations and has said that Noonen’s position was eliminated as part of a cost-saving effort.

Less than two months later, the same types of claims led to a sizeable jury verdict against a completely different business run by famed yoga guru Bikram Choudhury. Choudhury made his fortune teaching yoga instructors his techniques and allowing graduates to operate yoga studios that feature a specific yoga sequence performed in a 104-degree room. In January 2016, a Los Angeles jury found that Choudhury sexually harassed his former legal advisor and wrongfully fired her for investigating others’ claims of sexual discrimination and assault against him. Choudhury asserted he had good cause to fire his legal advisor because she was not licensed to practice law in California. The jury first ordered Choudhury and his yoga business to pay $924,000 in compensatory damages, and the next day the jury upped the ante with a further award of $6.4 million in punitive damages.

In each of these recent cases, employees alleged that their bosses improperly “retaliated” against them for investigating workplace misconduct. Most employers and employees know that laws exist to protect employees from wrongful discrimination and harassment. The same laws also provide that employers cannot punish or “retaliate” against employees for making complaints about other potentially wrongful employment conduct, such as discrimination or harassment, or for participating in workplace investigations about such potential wrongful employment conduct.

“Retaliation” is prohibited by the same federal laws that prohibit employment discrimination based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age, disability and gender. “Retaliation” can take many forms, including termination, demotion, suspension or other employment discipline against the employee for engaging in protected activity, such as reporting perceived employer discrimination or other misconduct. Owing to its broad scope, retaliation is a claim commonly raised by disgruntled or terminated employees. In fact, according to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (“EEOC”), retaliation is the most common basis of discrimination claims in EEOC cases.

These cases illustrate some of the many circumstances in which employment issues can lead to litigation against a wide variety of employers. Conkle, Kremer & Engel regularly advises employer and individuals on workplace issues and the ramifications of retaliation and harassment claims so that all involved can take steps to resolve conflicts in a meaningful, efficient way. When circumstances do not do not allow a non-litigated solution, CK&E attorneys litigate and arbitrate employment disputes including retaliation claims, whether the claims are asserted individually or as a class action.

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CK&E Lawyers CRASH Santa Monica Superior Court

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Conkle, Kremer & Engel lawyers John Conkle and H. Kim Sim recently volunteered their time and expertise to the Santa Monica Superior Court, serving as attorney volunteers in the Court’s Civil Referee Assisted Settlement Hearing (CRASH) mediation program.  Mediation is an alternative dispute resolution (ADR) process in which a neutral person (usually an experienced lawyer or retired judge) meets with the opposing parties to discuss the merits and risks of their claims and defenses, to try to reach a negotiated settlement.

The services of John and Kim were in high demand due to severe budget cuts affecting California courts. In an effort to deal with a significant budget shortfall for the 2013-14 fiscal year, the Los Angeles Superior Court announced in March the implementation of a countywide consolidation plan that will create regional hubs for certain types of cases. Personal injury civil cases filed in local courthouses are slated for transfer to the Stanley Mosk Courthouse in downtown Los Angeles, and when they come up for trial they can be transferred to be tried anywhere in Los Angeles County. The CRASH mediation program took on increased importance as parties in those personal injury cases – in danger of being transferred out of Santa Monica – were sent to participate in mediation conducted by attorney volunteers in a final attempt to settle and avoid a transfer.

CK&E attorneys seldom handle personal injury matters, but they are well practiced in the ways that insurance can be used to help resolve claims.  John and Kim also brought to the table their extensive experience in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) practice, including the mixture of law and psychology that is mediation.  But it was a different experience for them to sit at the center as a neutral, rather than as one of the advocates.  The Court and litigants were not the only beneficiaries of their work.  Volunteering for this program enhanced their insight into the mediation process and will enhance their effectiveness as client advocates.

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