Employer can't sue for court declaration in employment dispute

When a terminated employee advises the employer that there could be a suit for wrongful termination, it's probably unwise for the employer to first file against the employee, demanding that the court declare that the employer is correct in its position. That's generally an improper way to respond to a terminated employee's claims in an employment dispute, and one which recently failed miserably. A federal judge in California recently dismissed a lawsuit filed by a former employer against two teachers that the employer fired on religious grounds.

The teachers were terminated by the Christian Little Oaks School. It has been owned since 2009 by an affiliate of Calvary Chapel, located in Thousand Oaks. The school last year began to require employees to provide information about their faith and church attendance, along with an endorsement from their pastor. The two female teachers considered it employment discrimination and did not provide pastoral endorsements. They were both terminated in August.

The strange twist is that when the teachers' counsel accused the school of employment discrimination, the school sued the teachers! It asked a federal court to declare that it had a right to do what it did. To make it even more bizarre, it sued the teachers' law firm also. A federal court judge rightly dismissed the case, stating that it was an 'anticipated defense' to something not yet filed.

The court also ordered the school to pay some $14,000 of the teachers' legal fees. The court's decision appears sound - there is no legal controversy until the teachers actually sue the school. It can then respond accordingly. The judge also said that the lawsuit was baseless and did not show 'competent' inquiry. That slap at the school's counsel did not silence him: he publicly again insisted the school deserves to get a court's advance declaration that it acted properly.

California law allows for a wrongful termination action in an employment dispute for religious discrimination. The teachers claim that the school is operated for profit and falls under the jurisdiction of California's Fair Employment and Housing Act. That law prohibits employment discrimination, and gives the teacher's a right to bring litigation for compensation of their losses.

Source: dailynews.com, "Lawsuit against fired teachers dismissed by federal judge," Susan Abram, May 30, 2013

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