Manhattan Beach trash man can sue, Ninth Circuit says
by Ryan McDonald
A beloved former Manhattan Beach sanitation worker will get his day in court after a federal appeals panel ruled last week that he could proceed with an age discrimination lawsuit against a waste disposal company.
In a ruling last Friday, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals unanimously held that Gilberto Santillan may proceed with a pair of wrongful termination claims against USA Waste of California, a subsidiary of Waste Management Inc., which is the franchise waste hauler for all residents and businesses in the city. Santillan alleges that he had been the victim of age discrimination, and that he had been retaliated against for seeking the assistance of an attorney.
A district court had ruled in favor of USA Waste, ruling that his claims could not proceed as a matter of law. Friday’s ruling undermines the reasoning of the district court’s ruling, and will allow Santillan to potentially go before a jury.
Santillan was a well-known presence in Manhattan Beach, working a route in the city for 32 years and ingratiating himself with many local residents. The opinion, written by Carter appointee Harry Pregerson, referred multiple times to letters written by residents to USA Waste in support of Santillan.
John Taylor, an attorney who represented Santillan at trial, said the Ninth Circuit’s opinion reflected the strong local backing his client enjoyed.
“The community coming to support him was really significant. The fact that various letters were referred to in the court opinion indicates that court of appeal took the comments about him very seriously,” Taylor said. “It kind of reflects what can happen when the community gets behind someone.”
Christopher Boman, an attorney with the Orange County office of Fisher & Phillips who argued the case before the Ninth Circuit panel, did not immediately return a message left with his secretary. Kristen Nesbit, an attorney with the Los Angeles office of Fisher & Phillips who also worked on the case, said when reached that she was not authorized to speak on the matter.
Eloisa Orozco, area communications manager for Waste Management of Southern California, said in an email that the company was reviewing the court’s decision and deciding on its next steps.
Santillan began working at USA Waste in 1979, serving on the Manhattan Beach route for his entire time with the company. When in March 2011 the city was deciding whether to renew its agreement with Waste Management or contract with another hauler, Santillan’s personal service became a key theme in the campaign to retain Waste Management. Addressing the City Council as it deliberated over the $27 million contract, resident Shirley Stearns told council members about how Santillan had helped her after her husband passed away the previous year.
“My trash started appearing out in back, and I couldn’t understand it. I thought it must have been one of my neighbors. It was my trash collector! He was so wonderful, he did it for me,” Stearns said.
He was “rarely disciplined” in his first 30 years, but ran into problems when a new route manager for Manhattan Beach took over in 2009, the opinion states. Over the next two years, the new manager tried to discipline Santillan six times. The company fired Santillan in December 2011.
USA Waste claims that Santillan was involved in four accidents in the year preceding his termination. According to an Easy Reader article from 2012, Santillan drove over the cement corner of a residential driveway, causing some cracking. (According to the opinion, Santillan also had three self-reported accidents that caused minor damage to his truck.)
Emily Ashby, the resident who lived at the damaged property at the time of the incident, called the firing an overreaction in an interview with the Easy Reader at the time. She said that the street was narrow, tough to navigate and, in a letter to Waste Management, complimented Santillan on his driving skills.
The Ninth Circuit overruled the trial judge’s holding that Santillan lacked the makings of an age discrimination claim. It noted that Santillan, who spoke little English, was one of at least two older, Spanish-speaking employees who were let go when the new supervisor took over. And Santillan’s replacement on the Manhattan Beach route was as much as 13 years younger and had 20 fewer years of experience.
“It was a pretextual basis to terminate him,” Taylor said. “This was a 32-year employee who pretty much has a blemish free record for his career. This series of minor incidents, to use that as the basis to get rid of him, was really something.”
Santillan filed a grievance with USA Waste two days later. Once again, he was the cause of an outpouring of support, with at least 500 letters sent to the company. Residents reminded Waste Management that the company had won the contract in part because of their favorable comments about Santillan. Others shared stories of how he had helped a pregnant woman move her trash cans, and young boy who dressed as Santillan for Halloween.
He was temporarily reinstated in May 2012, only to be let go once more two months later. The company imposed a number of conditions on his reinstatement, and claimed that, rather than displaying any discriminatory intent, Santillan could not meet the necessary conditions. Although he was able to pass a physical and a drug test, they claimed Santillan could not comply with the requirements of an “e-verify” check designed to assure legal eligibility to work in the United States.
Though Santillan did not supply all of the eligibility documents the company requested, the court held that he was not required to produce them. Pregerson’s opinion revealed strong disagreement not only with the trial court judge’s reasoning, but also with the human resource operations of USA Waste.
“[USA Waste] argues that ‘the law’ required Santillan to provide in three days the employment eligibility documents that USA Waste demanded. But that is not what the law required, and an employer’s incorrect view of the law is not a legitimate reason for firing an employee,” the opinion stated.
Santillan’s case will now return to the district court. It is not clear when a trial will begin, Taylor said, because there is still extensive discovery to do in the case.