In Barbosa v. IMPCO Technologies, Inc., (— Cal.Rptr.3d —-, Cal.App. 4 Dist., November 30, 2009), a California Court of Appeal considered whether there is a public policy which protects an employee’s mistaken but good faith claim to overtime wages. The Court of Appeal held, “The public policy in favor of the employer’s duty to pay overtime wages protects an employee from termination for making a good faith but mistaken claim to overtime.”
Manuel Barbosa (“Barbosa”) worked for IMPCO Technologies, Inc. (“IMPCO”) as a carburetor assembler and he also supervised eight other employees. In June 2007, two of the employees under Barbosa’s supervision told him they were missing two hours overtime. After the two employees came to him with their concerns, Barbosa also thought he was missing two hours of overtime. Barbosa told the payroll administrator that he and four or five other employees had worked overtime but they did not get paid for that overtime. Barbosa told the payroll administrator that he believed the time clock was wrong. Barbosa also told his supervisor about the missing hours of overtime. The supervisor approved payment of the missing hours because he trusted Barbosa.
The payroll administrator later learned the scans from the security entrance gates revealed Barbosa and the other employees could not have worked the overtime they claimed they were missing. After IMPCO informed Barbosa about the security gate report, Barbosa stated, “Well, I confuse. And sorry, you know, it’s for the people coming to me and told me that I confuse.” When Barbosa received a paycheck that included pay for the extra overtime, he offered to pay the money back. It does not appear Barbosa was allowed to return the money to IMPCO. Instead, IMPCO terminated Barbosa for falsifying time records. The other employees were not terminated and the overtime money was recovered from those employees.
Barbosa brought a lawsuit against IMPCO for wrongful termination. The trial court granted judgment in favor of IMPCO on the ground that there is no public policy which protects an employee’s mistaken but good faith claim to overtime wages.
The Court of Appeal reversed the decision of the trial court. The appellate court held public policy protects Barbosa from being terminated after he made a good faith claim to overtime. Because Barbosa presented sufficient evidence to support a jury’s decision that he made the overtime claim in good faith, the trial court erred in granting judgment in favor of IMPCO.
“The common law recognizes the right of an at-will employee to bring an action in tort against his employer for termination of employment that violates a fundamental public policy.” An employee asserting claim of wrongful discharge must show that he or she was “wronged in a way that affects more than his [or her] immediate interest.” In order to determine if an employee’s claim involves a matter of public policy instead of just a dispute between the employee and his or her employer, a court must look at “whether the matter affects society at large, whether the policy is sufficiently clear, and whether it is fundamental, substantial, and well established at the time of the termination.”
The Court of Appeal concluded that “[t]he duty to pay overtime wages is a well-established fundamental public policy affecting the broad public interest.” Overtime wages foster “society’s interest in a stable job market.” In the context of whistleblowing claims, an employee who asserts a good faith but mistaken belief is protected from employer retaliation. The court found that an employee should also be protected when he exercises a “statutory right to overtime wages out of a reasonable good faith belief he is entitled to it, notwithstanding the later discovery that he is wrong.”
Here, the trial court found Barbosa had presented sufficient evidence to support his claim he had a good faith belief he was entitled to overtime. If Barbosa had a good faith belief he was entitled to overtime, it follows he was not attempting to cheat IMPCO. Barbosa’s claim of wrongful discharge should have been submitted to a jury.
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