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Federal court sends woman's wrongful firing claim back to state

A receptionist for a Northern California law firm was diagnosed with uterine cancer in 2008. When the time came to enroll in health insurance for 2009, the cancer, combined with the fact that she was turning 60, meant a staggering increase in her health insurance premium -- and for that of the small firm. The firm had an insurance broker convince her to choose a cheaper plan.

Six months later, the firm cut her pay by 25 percent. No one else’s salary was reduced. She complained but continued to work for the firm. In July 2011 she developed a repetitive-motion injury from folding and stuffing thousands of envelopes every month. The firm urged her to see an acupuncturist at her own expense rather than file a workers’ comp claim, but she refused.

In March 2012, she was told she had been laid off due to a firm reorganization. They said the receptionist position would be part-time in the future, but she was never offered that position. Moreover, the firm didn’t lay off any “male, younger, or able-bodied employees.”

These claims are from a wrongful termination lawsuit she filed in Sonoma County Superior Court last year, claiming her layoff was motivated by disability and age discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

The law firm, however, argued that her claims involved health insurance disputes, which are governed by the federal Employee Retirement Income Security Act, or ERISA. Since federal laws trump state laws in many cases, the firm got the lawsuit moved federal court.

The trouble is, the receptionist hadn’t actually brought an ERISA claim, although she could have if she thought she had been laid off because the law firm didn’t want to continue paying for her medical benefits. Once the case got to the federal court, she argued that no federal claim had been made.

The federal court agreed that the law firm had failed to demonstrate federal jurisdiction. The fact that the receptionist had a potential ERISA claim was not enough -- she had to actually file one. Furthermore, the court said, even an actual ERISA claim wouldn’t preempt her claims under the FEHA. The case is now back in state court.

She won but has been forced to endure several pointless proceedings without moving one step forward in her disability and age discrimination case. It’s a lot to ask from a plaintiff.

Source: Courthouse News Service, “Employment Case Belongs in Superior Court,” Philip A. Janquart, Jan. 17, 2014

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