Interim Incorporated provides housing and related services to adults with mental health disabilities. Interim hired Tommie Fields, an African-American man, as a counselor in 1989. During his 22-year career with Interim, he was one of the few African-American male counselors or employees.
Fields brought a worker’s compensation claim for psychiatric injuries. At the hearing, Interim argued that its decision to terminate Fields’s employment was “a nondiscriminatory, good faith personnel action” under Labor Code section 3208.3, subdivision (h), and thus Fields was not entitled to any benefits for his injuries.
The WCJ rejected this argument and found that Interim’s termination of Fields’s employment “was not a good faith personnel action; had the termination been a good faith personnel action it would not have met the . . . threshold necessary to bar the injury claim.”
Interim filed a petition for reconsideration with the Worker’s Compensation Appeals Board (WCAB) in which it argued that there was insufficient evidence to support the order. Reconsideration was denied.
Fields also brought a wrongful termination civil action against Interim Incorporated based on allegations of racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation pursuant to the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) (Gov. Code, § 12900 et seq.).
The jury found in favor of Interim on the FEHA and wrongful discharge causes of action. However, the jury found in favor of Fields on his intentional infliction of emotional distress cause of action and awarded him $2 million in damages. The trial court later granted Interim’s motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict.
On appeal, Fields contends that the trial court erred when it concluded that Interim was not collaterally estopped from presenting evidence of its nondiscriminatory, good faith personnel action. The Court of Appeal agreed and reverse the judgment in the unpublished case of Fields v Interim Incorporated.
The doctrine of collateral estoppel bars relitigation of an issue that has been decided in a former proceeding, including a worker’s compensation proceeding.
An employer, who has failed to establish that the employee’s psychiatric injuries were substantially caused by its lawful, nondiscriminatory, good faith personnel action in a worker’s compensation proceeding, cannot establish that its adverse employment action was based upon legitimate, nondiscriminatory factors under FEHA. Thus, one of the issues in the WCAB proceeding was identical to the issue at trial, that is, whether Interim’s termination of Fields’s employment was lawful and nondiscriminatory.