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County worker failed to show retaliation for comp claim

A former county employee failed to show her termination was due to her workers compensation claim, patient advocacy and complaints about health and safety issues.

In Riley v. County of El Dorado, a three-judge panel of the California Court of Appeals, 3rd District in Sacramento unanimously affirmed a trial court’s dismissal of the worker’s claims of retaliation and wrongful termination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act.

Nicole Riley began working part time as a mental health worker for the El Dorado County Psychiatric Health Facility in 2008, moving to full time in 2013. That year, she and others raised concerns about safety, including a planned reduction of staffing and the removal of a hallway in a remodel that would eliminate visual access to the community room. In January 2014, Ms. Riley was assaulted by a patient and filed a workers compensation claim for her injuries. In April of 2014, she took a higher paying job in another county office. However, she was terminated after two months for failure to complete probation. She then sought a job at the county’s drug and alcohol department, but the verbal offer was rescinded, according to the complaint. 

She filed a complaint against the county alleging retaliation and wrongful termination under the FEHA. She claimed that she was actually terminated and denied employment with the drug and alcohol department because of her workers comp claim, complaints about workplace safety and advocacy for mentally disabled patients. A trial court granted summary judgment to El Dorado County, holding that her claims were not covered by the FEHA. Ms. Riley appealed.

The appellate court, however, affirmed the trial court’s ruling, holding that her activities were not protected activity under the FEHA.

Although Ms. Riley contended that her advocacy for mentally ill patients was a protected activity, the court disagreed, noting that the FEHA prohibits discrimination in employment, but does not address health and safety concerns in the workplace.

She also argued that the filing of her workers compensation claim is a protected activity for the purposes of FEHA, but the court denied this charge as well, finding that her comp claim was “completely unrelated to any discriminatory employment por practice.” The court noted that she sought and received treatment for her injuries, including physical therapy, chiropractic and acupuncture services for the physical injuries caused by the assault in the workplace.