Wrongful Termination: Mistaken Overtime Claim

By on February 18, 2010 - Comments off

Barbosa v. IMPCO Technologies, (Fourth District, November 30, 2009) 179 Cal.App.4th 1116, 101 Cal.Rptr.3d 923

A man who was terminated from his job as a carburetor assembler for mistakenly claiming overtime pay to which he was not entitled, filed an action for wrongful termination. The plaintiff contended that although he had had a reasonable good faith belief that he was entitled to unpaid overtime, when he discovered the mistake and offered to pay the money back to the payroll department he was subsequently terminated for cheating the company.

After the plaintiff completed presentation of his case, the trial court granted the former employer’s motion for a non-suit, finding that there is no public policy requiring an employer to continue to employ an at-will employee who has made an unjustified claim for monies. However, the court of appeal reversed, holding that public policy protects an employee from being terminated for making a good faith but mistaken claim to overtime:

“[T]he Supreme Court held in Green v. Ralee Engineering Co. (1998) 19 Cal.4th 66, 78 Cal.Rptr.2d 16, 960 P.2d 1046 that a plaintiff’s failure to prove an actual violation of law by his employer did not defeat the wrongful termination cause of action. . . . As long as the employee makes the health or safety complaint in good faith, it does not matter for purposes of a wrongful termination action whether the complaint identifies an actual violation of other workplace safety statutes or regulations.” . . . .

It follows that the same result should obtain when an employee exercises his statutory right to overtime wages out of a reasonable good faith belief he is entitled to it, notwithstanding the later discovery that he is wrong. Any other conclusion would open the door to employee intimidation and chill the exercise of statutory rights.

Barbosa presented evidence that he had a reasonable good faith belief he was entitled to overtime. Under the previous time clock system, mistakes in timekeeping had been made; the new system had been in place less than a month. Barbosa’s co-workers convinced him the overtime was unpaid, and he in turn convinced DeSantos. He testified he was confused. In fact, the trial court acknowledged Barbosa had presented sufficient evidence to support a good faith belief when it granted the nonsuit.

IMPCO argues Barbosa cannot prove he was terminated for making a claim for overtime, asserting he was terminated for misrepresenting that he worked overtime when he did not. IMPCO contends it is not a violation of public policy to fire an employee for lying and cheating his employer. IMPCO misses the point. Barbosa must prove he had a reasonable good faith belief he was entitled to overtime wages and that IMPCO terminated him because he claimed overtime based on that reasonable good faith belief. If Barbosa proves he had a reasonable good faith belief in his right to overtime, ipso facto he did not attempt to cheat IMPCO. Because Barbosa presented sufficient evidence to support both elements in his case-in-chief, the case should have been allowed to progress to its conclusion and be submitted to a jury.”

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