California Employee gets Huge Wrongful Termination Award
April 1, 2014
On March 26, 2014, a jury in a California court awarded a former employee of San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) over $2.1 million at the end of his labor law trial. The award consists of $860,000 in compensatory damages and $1.3 million in punitive damages. Though SDG&E plans to appeal the decision and claims that the termination was due to misconduct, the employee asserts he was only trying to stand up for San Diego’s less fortunate residents.
Claims of Unfair Practices
David Bryant worked in the billing department of SDG&E for 22 years, moving up to becoming a collections supervisor over the years. Bryant raised concerns that SDG&E used its collections department to discriminate against poor customers. Specifically, Bryant claimed that in 2008, billing employees were instructed by utility managers to hand-deliver delinquency letters to homes around San Diego. When a delinquency notice is hand-delivered, SDG&E charges a $9 fee.
Bryant complained that 80 percent of the hand deliveries took place in low-income, high-density neighborhoods, such as southeast and central San Diego. He claimed SDG&E targeted these areas because they knew many households could not afford to pay their bills and the company would increase profits from late fees and the additional $9 charge. Furthermore, more SDG&E knew more accounts may be late in such neighborhoods, so more $9 deliveries could be made in a shorter amount of time. According to his testimony, in January 2011, employees delivered over 2,000 notices in one day, allowing SDG&E to charge approximately $18,000 in fees. Bryant stated that higher-income households in less dense areas often received delinquency notices via mail and were able to avoid the additional $9 charge on their bills.
Wrongful Termination Claims
Bryant states that after he began raising concerns about the unlawful and discriminatory billing practices, SDG&E terminated his employment. Bryant claims that SDG&E unlawfully fired him because he was a whistleblower and filed a wrongful termination lawsuit. SDG&E representatives maintained that Bryant was actually fired for “extremely inappropriate” misconduct and violation of company policies. SDG&E also said that they properly looked into Bryant’s claims of discrimination against low-income customers and found the claims to be “without merit,” and that his complaints had nothing to do with his firing. We will keep an eye on any appeal proceedings and whether Bryant’s award is overturned.
As for now, Bryant’s significant $2.1 million award serves as a reminder that juries are often willing to stand up for employees who suffer discrimination, retaliation, or other types of wrongful termination. Bryant maintains this particular jury is also standing up for the lower-income population of San Diego in its decision. Though California is an at-will employment state, companies may still terminate employees for unlawful and wrongful reasons. Companies are not allowed under California law to retaliate against employees who raise concerns of unlawful or unethical company practices, as such whistleblowers are protected under the law. If you believe you have suffered wrongful termination or any other type of discrimination, contact the Pershing Square Law Firm for help as soon as possible.