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October 2012

Los Angeles Employment Team Wins Defense Verdict in Religious Accommodation Case

On October 15, 2012, following a two week jury trial in the Los Angeles County Superior Court, Los Angeles employment partners Steve Ronk and Mollie Burks-Thomas, secured a complete defense verdict for their client, a commercial electrician’s apprenticeship program.

The Plaintiff, a former apprentice in our client’s inside wireman program, alleged seven causes of action including religious discrimination, failure to prevent discrimination, retaliation, aiding and abetting discrimination and harassment, intentional infliction of emotional distress, discrimination in violation of the Unruh Act, and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Prior to trial, the Gordon & Rees Team obtained summary adjudication on punitive damages and all but three of Plaintiff’s claims.

Plaintiff, a Jehovah’s Witness, claimed he was suspended and ultimately terminated from the apprenticeship program for requesting a religious accommodation to attend Tuesday night bible study classes.  It was undisputed that the apprenticeship program had no knowledge of Plaintiff’s religion or his attendance at the Tuesday night bible study classes until after Plaintiff had already violated apprentice policies by refusing a swing-shift job assignment with a third-party contractor, resulting in his automatic suspension from the program pending participation in an internal grievance process.  Following the grievance process, during which Plaintiff failed to present any evidence of his participation in the Tuesday night bible study classes, he was dropped from the program for policy violations. As a result, Plaintiff alleged he suffered severe emotional distress, including the on-set (and remission) of an adjustment disorder, and that he had not found, and never would find, alternate employment commensurate with the pay and benefits available to him as an apprentice and graduate from the apprenticeship program.

In defense of these claims, we established at trial that the apprenticeship program – which is regulated by the State of California – required adherence to strict apprenticeship rules in order to guarantee necessary on-the-job training for all apprentices.  We also elicited critical trial testimony from the third-party contractor that Plaintiff never requested Tuesday nights off for religious reasons, but that Plaintiff stated he was unable to work the swing shift due to childcare issues.  Notably, the contractor would have allowed Plaintiff to take Tuesday nights off to attend bible study, had such a request ever been made. This testimony severely impacted Plaintiff’s credibility with the jury.  It also established that Plaintiff’s religious belief did not truly conflict with a job requirement. We also presented evidence of Plaintiff’s present ability to rejoin the union thereby minimizing his economic loss claim.

The Hon. Judge Steven J. Kleifield granted Gordon & Rees’s Motion for Partial Non-Suit as to Plaintiff's common law Wrongful Termination claim. After deliberating for just two and one-half hours, the jury returned a defense verdict on the two remaining causes of action.

Stephen E. Ronk