A Look at a Lawsuit after a Longtime Driver Got Fired

After word of the firing got out, USA Waste received hundreds of letters from Manhattan Beach homeowners who live in the area.

The year was 1979.

Pink Floyd released “The Wall.”

ESPN launched as the first 24-hour cable TV channel.

An Atari video computer system cost $199.

And Gilberto Santillan started working for USA Waste as a residential garbage truck driver.

For the next 32 years, he regularly serviced the city of Manhattan Beach, Calif. How good of an employee was he? When the company’s collection contract with the city was up for renewal in March 2011, USA Waste bolstered its case to the city council by highlighting Santillan's exemplary service to the community. In an unusual display, Manhattan Beach homeowners themselves chimed in, praising his fine work. Not surprisingly, the city council renewed the contract.

Santillan was rarely disciplined during his first 30 years at USA Waste. But the situation changed in January 2009, after the company assigned Steve Kobzoff as Santillan's new Manhattan Beach route manager. Over the next 18 months, Kobzoff attempted to discipline Santillan six times. The parties dispute whether these "write-ups" violated the procedural protections afforded by the company's collective bargaining agreement.

On December 5, 2011, USA Waste fired Santillan, but not on the basis of the disputed write-ups. Instead, the company contended that it terminated him because he had four accidents in a 12-month period for which Kobzoff disciplined him using the procedures required under the collective bargaining agreement. Two days later, Santillan filed a formal grievance against USA Waste challenging his termination.

Santillan disputed both that he had four accidents and that USA Waste followed the collective bargaining procedures. Santillan was one of five older Spanish-speaking employees fired or suspended after Kobzoff was assigned as the Manhattan Beach route manager. Another employee, Janson Vartanian, replaced Santillan. According to a company human resources employee, Vartanian was over the age of 40 and had 11 years’ experience driving garbage trucks.

After word of the firing got out, USA Waste received hundreds of letters from Manhattan Beach homeowners who live in the area served by Santillan, demanding that the hauler reinstate him. The letters—excerpts from which were later published in a local newspaper—reminded the company that it had likely succeeded in renewing its garbage collection contract with the city because residents came out in droves to support Santillan, who they called their "first class" residential garbage truck driver.

The tributes described Santillan as "positively impact[ing] every family on [the] street," and "extremely helpful," going above and beyond his responsibilities. One homeowner went so far as to introduce her sons to Santillan because he "works hard, and has a beautiful spirit and attitude," and "in terms of class and integrity and a radiant personality there is no one in the world who can hold a candle to Gilberto [Santillan]."

In May, 2012, in the presence of USA Waste's attorney, Santillan's attorney and a union representative, the company and Santillan signed a settlement agreement under which the hauler agreed to reinstate Santillan if he passed the California Department of Transportation drug test, a physical exam and a criminal background check, and if he could verify his work-authorization status through federal records. In exchange, Santillan agreed to dismiss the grievance he filed.

After Santillan successfully completed the drug test, physical exam, and the criminal background check, USA Waste sent Santillan a letter informing him that his first day back at work would be July 16, 2012. The letter also told Santillan that he would need to complete a Form I-9 (employment eligibility verification) documenting his right to work in the United States. The letter (written in English even though the company knew that Santillan communicated in Spanish) included only the last page of the five-page Form I-9, which was printed in English although it was available in Spanish.

Santillan reported to work on his start date with his driver's license and social security card to complete Form I-9. Maria Diaz, a company human resources worker, then informed him that he also needed a work authorization number and expiration date. Santillan did not have that information with him. Diaz asked him to bring the information to work the next day. The following day, and the day after, Santillan gave Diaz a letter with an identification number. According to Diaz, what he provided had no expiration date and she thus could not complete electronic employment verification of his work authorization.

On the third day after his start date, Diaz sent Santillan home, telling him he could not work and that the company would be in contact. Six days later, on July 24, 2012, USA Waste sent a letter to Santillan informing him that the company was firing him because he did not provide proof of his legal right to work in the United States within three days of hire, as required by the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) and the settlement agreement.

In December, 2013, Santillan filed a complaint against USA Waste in Los Angeles County Superior Court, alleging wrongful termination based on age discrimination under state and federal law and in retaliation for having an attorney represent him during the settlement negotiations. USA Waste opted to transfer the case to a federal district court where, based on the key facts not being in dispute, it filed a motion for summary disposition.

After conducting a hearing, the district judge ruled in favor of USA Waste on Santillan's wrongful termination claim based on age discrimination, finding that Santillan failed to provide sufficient evidence. As for the retaliation claim, the judge held that Santillan's failure to provide the documentation that the company demanded in the three-day time frame it required was a "legitimate, non-retaliatory reason for the July 2012 termination.”

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the district judge's ruling and remanded the case to the lower court for further proceedings.

The panel held that the judge was wrong in determining that Santillan failed to establish an age discrimination claim. The panel further held that USA Waste failed to rebut the presumption of unlawful discrimination because it did not offer a legitimate reason for firing Santillan. The company's only proffered reason was Santillan's failure to provide proof of his legal right to work in the United States as required by the IRCA. Specifically, the panel held that, contrary to what the company had demanded, IRCA exempted Santillan from having to prove employment eligibility. The panel also held that making Santillan's reinstatement contingent upon such proof violated California public policy.

The panel further held that Santillan established a legally sufficient retaliation case and a presumption of unlawful retaliation. In addition, the panel held that the district court erroneously concluded that Santillan did not engage in protected activity when he used an attorney to negotiate his reinstatement. Indeed, California public policy protected Santillan's right to representation by an attorney to negotiate the terms and conditions of his employment.

In remanding the case, the appellate panel, as if to underscore its across-the-board disagreement with the lower court’s handling of the case, strongly suggested that the district judge consider whether any lingering factual uncertainties would preclude a direct and immediate ruling on the merits in favor of Santillan.

Santillan v. USA Waste of California, Inc., No. 15-55238 (9th Cir., Apr. 4, 2017)

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