Boston v. Penny Lane Centers, Inc., 170 Cal. App. 4th 936 (2009)

LaToya Boston worked as a therapist and treatment coordinator for Penny Lane, a social services agency that operates group homes for juveniles and offers therapy for children and families. When Boston was first hired, Penny Lane maintained staffing ratios of one staff member for every three clients, but in time the number of clients increased, making it difficult for Boston to do her job and adhere to safety guidelines. After Boston was injured when a fight broke out between clients in her group therapy, she complained that “my work environment is no longer safe.” Following Boston’s termination a month later (ostensibly for poor performance), she sued for tortious termination in violation of the public policy contained in Labor Code §§ 6310-6312 (prohibiting retaliation for refusal to work in violation of health and safety standards, among other things). At trial, the jury awarded Boston $500,000 in compensatory damages and $200,000 in punitive damages. The Court of Appeal affirmed the judgment in Boston’s favor, rejecting Penny Lane’s assertion that she was limited to an exclusive remedy under Health & Safety Code § 1596.882 (protecting from discrimination employees who make a good faith complaint to a regulatory agency or the employer regarding violations of the Health & Safety Code). The Court also held the trial court did not abuse its discretion by admitting testimony from Boston’s expert witnesses, whose expert reports and writings Penny Lane contended had not been timely produced prior to trial. Cf. Rankin v. Longs Drug Stores Cal., Inc., 169 Cal. App. 4th 1246 (2009) (federal Combat Methamphetamine Epidemic Act operated to abate any action against employer for its alleged violation of Labor Code § 432.7, which prohibits an employer from asking applicants about convictions for certain drug offenses more than two years old); Gibson v. Office of the Attorney Gen., 561 F.3d 920 (9th Cir. 2009) (California OAG did not violate attorney-employee’s First Amendment rights or breach its contract with her by insisting that she cease to represent another OAG employee in a private legal malpractice case).