Court of Appeals Sets Aside Employee’s Wrongful Discharge Claim

The Arizona Court of Appeals has set aside a $375,000 award to a former City of Surprise police sergeant after finding that she failed to pursue her claim under the Arizona Civil Rights Act.

In a decision filed earlier this month, Petersen v City of Surprise, the appellate court noted that evidence at trial showed that the former police sergeant Alicia Peterson had been subjected to sexually abusive harassment. In one instance, she testified that she needed help in the field and called for backup three times, but no officers came to her aid. “What happened to Peterson belongs in no workplace, let alone a public workplace whose purpose is law enforcement..”

Despite this observation, the appellate court nonetheless found that she was out of luck.  Under the Arizona Civil Rights Act, sexual discrimination or harassment claims must be filed within 180 days (or 300 days for federal Title VII claims), and the state’s Civil Rights Act spells out the process for filing such claims.  Peterson did not file her action against the city until a year after her resignation. With the deadline gone for filing a state discrimination claim, Peterson filed a claim under the Arizona Employment Protection Act.  She alleged that she was forced to resign as a result of the retaliation she experienced after reporting a statutory violation. That, in other circumstances, would have been a timely claim, but the appellate court held that that her whistleblower claim was “indistinguishable” from the claim that she could have brought under the Civil Rights Act.

The Employment Protection Act protects employees who are fired in violation of a statute, but if the statute provides a remedy, that is the employee’s only recourse.  The court held that Petersen could not avoid that restriction – with its tighter deadline and procedures – by recrafting her claim as a whistleblower retaliation claim.

For employers and employees, the lesson is to be mindful of deadlines and the substance of the claim.

By William Horne

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