Case Marks First Time Novel “Associational Discrimination” Theory Tried in California

ZHE has secured a $492,000 verdict against Kaiser Permanente on behalf of a former medical assistant who the jury found was wrongfully terminated because she was a nuisance due to her son’s medical condition that was too expensive for the massive healthcare provider. The verdict came on the heels of a four-week trial in San Diego Superior Court.

Plaintiff Maria Gonzalez worked in Kaiser’s pain management department for twelve years, and both she and her son Pedro were insured through Kaiser’s health plan.  Ms. Gonzalez alleged that Kaiser misdiagnosed her son and failed to properly remove simple kidney stones, which caused him to suffer serious infections, acute renal failure, and major surgeries. Ms. Gonzalez and Pedro escalated their concerns about Pedro’s care to Kaiser’s upper management, to no avail. Instead, Ms. Gonzalez was terminated.

A team of ZHE lawyers argued at trial that Maria was discriminated against based on her son’s disability, relying on a unique “associational discrimination” theory that had up to this point not been tried in court. The case marked the first time an association theory of discrimination under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, or FEHA, has been tried in the state.

The verdict far surpassed Kaiser’s highest pretrial settlement offer of $15,000.

“We’re thrilled that a jury of everyday San Diegans saw what we did when we first took this case over two years ago – that Maria Gonzalez was discriminated against and ultimately wrongfully fired so Kaiser could contain the costs and nuisance caused by her son Pedro’s care,” said ZHE partner Alreen Haeggquist. “This is a huge win for Maria, and the jury’s award will allow her and Pedro to move on with their lives and put this difficult chapter behind them. We are exceedingly grateful to the jury for carefully weighing the evidence we presented at trial and for believing in Maria and Pedro.”

“Since the inception of our firm, the lawyers at ZHE have dedicated ourselves to pursuing justice on behalf of clients like Maria,” said ZHE partner Aaron Olsen, who together with Haeggquist represented Ms. Gonzalez at trial. “This case sends an important message to California employers that discrimination of any kind in the workplace will not be tolerated. We are watching, and we are ready and willing to pursue cases like this through trial to vindicate our clients’ causes.”

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