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  • Writer's pictureRyan Cadry

Navigating the Avoidable Consequences Doctrine in California Employment Law

Updated: Jan 5

California employment law provides strong protections for employees against discrimination, harassment, and other workplace injustices. However, it is crucial for employees to understand their responsibilities in mitigating the impact of such situations. One aspect of employment law that may affect employees is the "avoidable consequences" defense. This article will explore the details of this defense from an employee's perspective, along with its origins in case law, and how it might impact an employee's rights.

What is the Avoidable Consequences Defense?

The avoidable consequences defense is a legal principle that allows employers to limit their liability in employment law cases by arguing that an employee failed to take reasonable steps to minimize the harm they suffered. Essentially, this defense claims that the employee could have avoided or mitigated the negative consequences resulting from the employer's wrongful conduct.

The rationale behind this defense is that the law seeks to encourage individuals to take responsibility for their own well-being and not to passively endure wrongful behavior. As an employee, it is important to understand how this defense may affect your ability to recover damages in a lawsuit against your employer.

To better understand the avoidable consequences defense, it is helpful to break down its key components and explore how they may affect employees in employment law cases.

  1. Reasonable Steps: The crux of the avoidable consequences defense lies in the expectation that employees must take "reasonable steps" to mitigate the harm they experience as a result of their employer's wrongful conduct. The term "reasonable" is somewhat subjective, and courts will often examine the specific circumstances of a case to determine whether the employee's actions were, in fact, reasonable. Factors that courts may consider include the employee's knowledge of the situation, the severity of the wrongful conduct, and the availability of internal procedures for addressing the issue. Regardless, employees are expected to actively work towards reducing the impact of the harm they have suffered. In some cases, this might involve following internal complaint procedures, seeking alternative employment, or pursuing professional counseling to address emotional distress. The burden is on the employer to prove that the employee's failure to mitigate their damages was unreasonable under the circumstances.

  2. Proportionate Liability: If an employer successfully invokes the avoidable consequences defense, the court may reduce the damages awarded to the employee. However, this does not absolve the employer of all liability. Instead, the court will typically allocate liability proportionately between the employer and the employee, based on the degree to which each party's actions contributed to the harm suffered. This ensures that employers are still held accountable for their wrongful conduct, while employees are encouraged to take responsibility for their well-being.

  3. Limitations of the Defense: It is important to note that the avoidable consequences defense does not apply in all employment law cases. For example, it may not be applicable in situations where the employee is not aware of their rights, or where the employer's wrongful conduct is so severe that it renders the employee incapable of taking reasonable steps to mitigate their damages. Additionally, the avoidable consequences defense does not shield employers from liability for punitive damages, which are designed to punish particularly egregious conduct.

Origins in Case Law

The avoidable consequences defense has its roots in several California court decisions. One of the most influential cases is State Department of Health Services v. Superior Court (2003) 31 Cal.4th 1026. In this case, the California Supreme Court held that an employee has a duty to mitigate damages in a wrongful termination claim by seeking other employment. The court ruled that the employee's failure to do so could reduce the employer's liability for lost wages.

Another key case is McGinnis v. Kentucky Fried Chicken of California (1996) 51 Cal.App.4th 1346. Here, the court extended the avoidable consequences defense to sexual harassment claims, stating that an employee must take reasonable steps to avoid or minimize the harm resulting from harassment.

These cases and others have established the avoidable consequences defense as a fundamental aspect of California employment law.

Examples of Avoidable Consequences

Consider how the following hypothetical scenarios illustrate how the avoidable consequences defense may come into play in various situations involving California employment law:

Scenario 1: Samantha experiences sexual harassment from her supervisor at work. She does not report the incidents to HR or follow the company's internal complaint procedures. As the harassment continues, Samantha eventually quits her job and files a lawsuit against her employer. In this case, the employer could potentially invoke the avoidable consequences defense, arguing that if Samantha had reported the harassment, they could have taken corrective measures to stop it, thus mitigating her harm.

Scenario 2: John believes he was wrongfully terminated from his job due to his race. Instead of actively seeking new employment, he waits for several months before starting his job search. He later files a lawsuit against his former employer for lost wages. The employer could potentially assert the avoidable consequences defense, arguing that John's failure to diligently seek new employment has unnecessarily increased his lost wages claim.

Scenario 3: Michelle experiences disability discrimination at work, which makes it difficult for her to perform her job duties. Her employer has a reasonable accommodation policy in place, but Michelle does not request any accommodations or report the discrimination. She later files a lawsuit against her employer for damages caused by the discrimination. The employer may rely on the avoidable consequences defense, claiming that if Michelle had requested accommodations, they could have addressed the issue, and the harm could have been mitigated.

Scenario 4: Hostile Work Environment David experiences a hostile work environment due to ongoing racial harassment from his coworkers. He reports the incidents to his supervisor but sees no action taken. He then resigns from his job and files a lawsuit against his employer. In this case, the avoidable consequences defense may not be as effective for the employer, as David did take steps to report the issue and seek resolution. His employer's failure to address the situation could weaken their defense.

These hypothetical scenarios demonstrate how the avoidable consequences defense can be used by employers in various situations. As an employee, understanding this defense and taking appropriate steps to address workplace issues can help protect your legal rights and ensure a better outcome in a potential lawsuit.

How the Avoidable Consequences Defense Affects Employees

As an employee, understanding the avoidable consequences defense is essential to preserving your legal rights. Here are some practical implications of this defense:

  1. Reporting Wrongful Conduct: It is important to promptly report any instances of discrimination, harassment, or other wrongful conduct to your employer. Failing to do so may allow your employer to assert the avoidable consequences defense, arguing that the harm could have been mitigated if you had reported the issue.

  2. Following Internal Procedures: Be sure to follow your employer's internal policies and procedures for addressing workplace issues. This may include filing a formal complaint, participating in mediation, or engaging in other resolution processes. Ignoring these procedures could undermine your legal claim if your employer argues that you failed to take advantage of available remedies.

  3. Seeking Alternative Employment: If you've been wrongfully terminated or forced to leave your job due to your employer's wrongful conduct, make a diligent effort to seek alternative employment. The avoidable consequences defense may limit your ability to recover lost wages if you fail to make a reasonable effort to find a new job.

  4. Documenting Your Efforts: Keep thorough records of the steps you take to address wrongful conduct, such as reporting incidents, following internal procedures, and seeking alternative employment. This documentation can serve as evidence in court to refute an avoidable consequences defense.

Understanding the nuances of the avoidable consequences defense is essential for employees who want to protect their rights in employment law cases. By taking reasonable steps to mitigate the harm they experience and being proactive in addressing workplace issues, employees can better position themselves for a favorable outcome in any potential legal disputes.



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