January 8, 2021

Wrongfully Terminated Employee Preserves Multi-million Dollar Judgment Against U.S. Bank by Winning at Court of Appeal

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Employee wins $17.2 million for lawsuit including wrongful termination and defamation claims. In King v. U.S. Bank Nat’l Ass’n, 52 Cal.App.5th 728 (2020), Timothy King alleged he was wrongfully terminated, was defamed, and suffered other employment violations. He worked for U.S. Bank and earned positive performance reviews from 2007 to 2011. King supervised four people including Kim Thakur. Ms. Thakur complained about King to HR, alleging gender discrimination. Ms. Thakur and another of King’s subordinates reported to HR that King had instructed them to falsify expense reports and meeting schedules.

King sued U.S. Bank for defamation, wrongful termination in violation of public policy (citing Lab. Code, § 200 et seq.), and breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The jury found in favor of King on all causes of action. The jury awarded King $6 million in damages, consisting of $1 million for harm to his property, business, trade, profession, or occupation, $4 million for harm to his reputation, and $1 million for shame, mortification, or hurt feelings.  The jury also found the company breached the covenant of good faith and fair dealing because King had done all or substantially all items required by his employment contract, but the company terminated him to interfere with the benefits of the contract.

The jury also found that, as of the date of his termination, King had earned a bonus and U.S. Bank's desire to deprive King of that bonus was a substantial motivating reason for the decision to terminate his employment. The jury awarded King $2,489,696 in damages, consisting of $1,035,430 for past lost earnings and $1,454,266 for future lost earnings.

“The question is not whether there was substantial evidence U.S. Bank terminated King solely because it wanted to deprive him of the bonus; the question is whether there was substantial evidence to find it was a reason that actually contributed to the termination. There was such evidence.”

“The jury could have inferred from the evidence regarding the questionable timing of King's termination coupled with the conflicting testimony as to who made the decision to terminate King, the apparent rush to terminate him, and the failure to conduct a thorough and objective investigation that U.S. Bank desired to deprive King of his bonus and it was a reason that actually contributed to the termination.” The Court of Appeal denied the employer’s arguments but agreed with certain of the employee’s arguments. It noted that the company’s witnesses changed their story over time regarding which individuals decided to terminate King.”

“An employer's failure to interview witnesses for potentially exculpatory information may evidence pretext. (Nazir v. United Airlines, Inc., supra, 178 Cal.App.4th at p. 280, 100 Cal.Rptr.3d 296.).” The unanimous opinion included the following conclusion: “The judgment is reversed and the matter remanded to the trial court with directions to: (1) reinstate the jury's $1 million defamation award against U.S. Bank for harm to King's property, business, trade, profession, or occupation; (2) reinstate the jury's $4 million defamation award for harm to King's reputation; and (3) modify the punitive damages award against U.S. Bank to $8,489,696. The judgment is affirmed as so modified. King shall recover his costs on appeal. (Cal. Rules of Court, rule 8.278(a)(1), (3) & (5).)”

Wins this large are rare, so employment attorneys and employees will be looking to the King case for years as a benchmark for wrongful termination claims and other employment lawsuits.