Workplace Discrimination Whistle Blowers Win CA State Protections

August 12, 2005 ( - The California Supreme Court has decided that the state's discrimination law applies to a cosmetics executive who refused to fire a sales associate whom the executive's boss had judged to be unattractive.

The 4-2 decision in the case filed by Elysa Yanowitz, L’Oreal USA’s former Northern California and Pacific Northwest regional sales manager, extended protections for those who oppose workplace discrimination, according to a Sacramento Bee report.

In reinstating the Yanowitz lawsuit against L’Oreal USA, theGolden State’s Supreme Court made it easier for employees to get a trial for asserted violations of the state’s Fair Employment and Housing Act. An eventual lower court trial will decide if L’Oréal did anything wrong.

Yanowitz alleged in her suit that the cosmetics company retaliated against her when balked at implementing a supervisor’s order to fire an employee she considered productive because the supervisor didn’t consider the worker to be “hot.”

The decision “sends a message that workers are allies with the court in the battle against discrimination in the workplace and that if they stand up against discrimination, the law will protect them against retaliation, no matter what form that retaliation takes,” Joseph Grodin, the former Supreme Court justice who argued Yanowitz’s case, told the newspaper.

The decision was the second in less than a month in which the state’s highest court expanded whistle-blower protections. It gave the green light in July to a suit against the state Department of Corrections by two employees who had complained about a warden’s sexual relations with other employees. Like Yanowitz, the plaintiffs ultimately left their jobs under strained circumstances.

According to court records, Yanowitz went to work for L’Oréal in 1981 and was promoted to regional sales manager five years later, earning high marks on performance reviews, big bonuses and increased responsibilities.

Trouble started in the fall of 1997, after division general manager Jack Wiswall allegedly told Yanowitz to fire a dark-skinned sales associate whom he didn’t find attractive. The suit says Wiswall told Yanowitz to “get me somebody hot,” expressing a preference for fair-skinned blondes. Yanowitz claims she asked for an adequate justification to fire the associate.

She ultimately refused to carry out Wiswall’s order.

Yanowitz alleges a series of retaliatory acts against her began – solicitation of negative information from her subordinates, complaints about her performance, travel restrictions, veiled threats of dismissal. She went on stress-related disability leave in July of that year and never returned.

In its defense, L’Oréal had argued that Yanowitz never said she was disobeying Wiswall’s order because she considered it discriminatory.

Chief Justice Ronald George said in the ruling that Yanowitz could sue for retaliation despite the fact that she wasn’t fired or demoted – that illegal employer retaliation can take the form of “subtle, yet damaging, injuries” rather than “one swift blow.”

 The California Supreme Court ruling is    here .