Court OKs civil trial for ex-Safeway employee

Was he fired over gay pride poster?

rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.comAugust 5, 2013 

An appellate court ruling last week cleared the way for a civil jury trial in the case of a Planada man who claims Safeway fired him for removing a poster about gay and lesbian pride month.

Juan Nava, 38, worked as a forklift driver at the company's Merced distribution center for 10 years, according to the complaint filed with the Merced County Superior Court.

He was terminated June 10, 2009, nine days after he removed the poster from the grocery chain's break room.

"I was offended by the political message of the gay and lesbian pride poster in the break room, and I did not agree with it. I was not alone in this feeling … " Nava said in his declaration.

"Because I refused to agree with Safeway's political policy and message, I removed the poster and placed it outside of the break room … consequently, I was terminated," the declaration continued.

Merced County Judge Ronald Hansen dismissed the civil lawsuit against Safeway in 2011 and entered a judgment for Safeway, which argued that the poster's message promoted diversity and tolerance, something that was within the company's freedom of speech rights.

The appellate court overturned that decision, concluding that Nava's termination could have been because he expressed his political beliefs, which is a labor law violation.

Nava was questioned by Safeway human resources officials June 4 about why he discarded the poster, which they said was company property, according to the complaint.

Nava claims the officials "expressed disapproval" of his position on the issue.

Brian Whelan, Nava's Fresno-based attorney, said the incident occurred against the backdrop of public debate about the state's Proposition 8 ruling that banned same-sex marriage.

"Because of the timing and the way Mr. Nava expressed himself to superiors, the inference can be drawn that he was terminated for his political views," Whelan said. "The evidence suggests that the termination was not just because he discarded a poster, but because he was being punished for political views that Safeway disagreed with."

In addition to Nava, two other Safeway employees took down the poster, which featured gay politician Harvey Milk, but were not terminated — instead, they were suspended for a few days.

"It was almost like they were trying to make an example of Mr. Nava," Whelan said. "It was an escalation of events and Mr. Nava was the last one (to remove the poster)."

Keith Turner, director of public affairs for Safeway, submitted a written statement about the ruling:

"Safeway respectfully disagrees with the appellate court's decision and is weighing its options for further appellate review. We are encouraged by the Appellate Court's support of Safeway's right to promote tolerance and diversity.

Safeway remains confident that the outcome of the litigation will confirm that the company acted properly in terminating Mr. Nava's employment."

According to Whelan, gay employees at Safeway said Nava treated them with respect.

He said the issue was about political beliefs being pushed by Safeway.

"It was about a political issue and coercing political cooperation does not belong in the workplace," Whelan said. "Mr. Nava was a quality employee of Safeway, and Safeway chose to take a political position against Mr. Nava and caused him and his family considerable damage."

Since being fired, Nava hasn't been able to find other employment and has lost his home to foreclosure, Whelan said.

Whelan said the civil case will proceed to a jury trial, where he is seeking damages for lost wages, economic damage and emotional distress.

Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or rgiwargis@mercedsunstar.com.

Modesto Bee is pleased to provide this opportunity to share information, experiences and observations about what's in the news. Some of the comments may be reprinted elsewhere in the site or in the newspaper. We encourage lively, open debate on the issues of the day, and ask that you refrain from profanity, hate speech, personal comments and remarks that are off point. Thank you for taking the time to offer your thoughts.

Commenting FAQs | Terms of Service