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Firm News

August 25, 2011

Judge Upholds Public Agency Decision to Discharge Employee in Internet Abuse Case


On July 14, 2011, Los Angeles Judge Ann I. Jones denied a writ of mandate filed by a former employee of the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles who was discharged from that agency. Irma Rodriguez Moisa, a partner with the law firm of Atkinson, Andelson, Loya, Ruud & Romo, provided legal counsel to the Housing Authority over the five-year history of the case.

“This case clearly illustrates the challenges facing public sector employers in the effort to discharge an employee for egregious behavior demonstrating violation of policy. However, it also reveals that strong evidence, a solid anti-harassment policy, and due diligence in educating staff about the policy can secure a successful outcome,” notes Moisa.

In California, an employer is strictly liable for a supervisor’s harassing conduct. The U.S. Census reports that there are more than 1.5 million state and local government employees in California, creating a huge burden for cash-strapped public agencies. Exacerbating the problem is a growing use of the Internet for personal use during work. A 2008 survey found that 27% of companies say they have discharged employees for misuse of office e-mail or Internet connections and 65% report some disciplinary measure for those offenses.*

The Authority was faced with the growing challenge of Internet abuse in the workforce. A manager working for the Housing Authority sent more than 130 emails that were sexually explicit, racially insensitive, chain letters, or otherwise improper in a business environment. The non-business related emails to subordinates, non-management individuals, and other employees and managers within the agency. Despite the employee’s awareness of the agency’s Anti-Harassment Policy and multiple reprimands, the employee contended that the actions did not constitute harassment, that the employee was unaware of the Authority policy on Anti-Harassment and that the emails were intended to “relieve stress” or as a “morale booster.” The Court rejected these contentions and affirmed the termination.

For more information, please contact Amy Spach at (323) 876-6374 or Jane Guesnon at (562) 653-3409.
*Survey by International Data Corporation (IDC), 2008

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