Monday, November 3, 2003
C.A. Revives Suit by Activist Who Says Newspaper Fired Him for Criticizing Rep. Maxine Waters
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A local activist who claims he was fired from his job as a newspaper columnist because he criticized Rep. Maxine Waters for supporting James Hahn’s mayoral campaign is entitled to sue the publisher for wrongful termination, the Court of Appeal for this district ruled Friday.
Div. Seven reinstated Najee Ali’s suit against L.A. Focus Publication. Ali, Presiding Justice Dennis Perluss wrote, had alleged facts sufficient to state a claim for termination in violation of the fundamental public policy expressed in Labor Code Secs. 1101 and 1102.
The law bars an employer from “[f]orbidding or preventing employees from engaging or participating in politics,” “[c]ontrolling or directing, or tending to control or direct the political activities or affiliations of employees,” or coercing or attempting “to coerce or influence... employees through or by means of threat of discharge loss of employment to adopt or follow or refrain from adopting or following any particular course or line of political action or political activity.”
Ali alleged that he was hired as the “community affairs editor,” a title later changed to “community affairs columnist,” for the newspaper in January 2000 and held the position until June 2001. He alleged that he was fired less than a week after a guest appearance on a local radio show, where he said he was supporting Antonio Villaragoisa for mayor and criticized Waters, D-Los Angeles, for her support of Hahn.
Hahn, then the city attorney, defeated Villaragoisa and is now mayor. Villaragoisa, an Assembly member at the time, was elected to the City Council earlier this year.
Ali claims that the newspaper’s part-owner, Jheryl Busby, said she had “no choice” but to fire Ali for criticizing Waters, a longtime fixture in South Los Angeles politics and a friend of Busby’s.
In moving for summary judgment, the defendant claimed that Ali was not an employee, but rather an independent contractor. The publisher presented evidence that Ali was paid only for articles that were accepted for publication, that he never requested or received a W-2 form or had taxes withheld, that he was paid less than $1,350 for the entire time he was there, and that he held a salaried position as director of Project Islamic Hope, which he founded.
Judge Susan Bryant-Deason agreed and granted the motion. She also held that there was no violation of public policy.
Perluss, however, said there was evidence from which a reasonable trier of fact could infer that Ali was an employee, since he claimed that he was provided with a computer and required to work closely with the publisher on the content of his articles.
As for the public policy issue, Perluss wrote:
“Ali asserts he was fired not because the content of his articles contravened the editorial policies or standards of the newspaper, but because outside of the workplace he publicly criticized an influential public official for supporting a particular political candidate. Whether Ali can ultimately prove all the elements of his claim, he has submitted sufficient evidence of a public policy violation to survive a motion for summary judgment.”
Attorneys on appeal were Leo James Terrell for Ali and Angela J. Reddock for L.A. Focus Publication.
The case is Ali v. L.A. Focus Publication, 03 S.O.S. 5639.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company