Thursday, December 8, 2011

Deviant Employees Protected from Termination

As you know, Megan’s Law set up a website that lists registered sex offenders.  Before extending an offer of employment, one might think that checking that website would be a quick way to make sure a sex offender is not being hired, especially if the job involves contact with children.  One would be wrong.

California is an at-will employment state, meaning that employers can terminate employees for any reason or no reason at all. Although there are statutory exceptions prohibiting employers from taking adverse employment action on the basis of race, gender, and other protected groups, a loophole in Megan’s Law serves to make sex offenders a protected group giving them rights that other employees do not have.

Sex offenders are filing claims for wrongful termination, utilizing Megan’s Law as the legal grounds to secure and retain employment. The Megan’s Law Statute, set forth in California Penal Code Section 290.46, states that a person is authorized to use information disclosed pursuant to the statute — that a person is a registered sex offender –  “only to protect a person at risk.”  California Penal Code § 290.46(1).  The statute specifically “prohibits, except as authorized to protect a person at risk or pursuant to another provision of law, the use of any information that is disclosed through the statute for purposed related to any of the following: health insurance, insurance, loans, credit, employment, education . . ., and housing and accommodations.” California Penal Code § 390.46(2)(E).

In other words, California employers may not discriminate in employment of an employee on the basis of his or her status as a registered sex offender, if such status is discovered through the Megan’s Law website, unless it is to protect a person at risk or pursuant to some other provision of law.  One such provision of law is Labor Code section 432.7, which addresses what questions an employer can ask an employment applicant.  Labor Code section 432.7 allows an employer to ask and use the fact of a “conviction” in determining any condition of employment; however, legal practice guides have interpreted it to apply only to hiring.  As such, California employers may discriminate in “hiring” sex offenders if that information comes from a questions about convictions.  However, if the employer fails to ask whether the applicant has any convictions, and later discovers through the Megan’s law website that its employee is a registered sex offender, the employer is liable for wrongful termination if it terminates the sex offender employee based on that information.

This serves to put the employer in an unenviable position: it may be held liable for the sex offender employee’s negligent conduct (for instance, if the sex offender employee physically abuses a co-worker) or face a claim by the sex offender employee for wrongful termination if it fires said employee.
Further, it is nonsensical that an employer can learn this information through other sources (i.e. public records search) and legally terminate the employee on that basis, yet is liable if obtained on the Megan’s Law website.  I suppose an employment attorney could suggest to clients that they check the Megan website to see if the employee is listed as a sex offender, and if so, then find the same information from some other source so the termination or rejection would not be based on what was found on the Megan site.  But that would circumvent the absurd result intended by our fine Legislature that sex offenders receive special protections, and I would never suggest such a thing.

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