California Appellate Court Holds Substantial Motivating Factor Required In Wrongful Termination Case

by Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & Stewart, P.C.

Mendoza v. Western Medical Center Santa Ana, G047394 (January 14, 2014): A California Court of Appeal recently held that a retrial is necessary in the case of a gay nurse who was fired after his employer investigated his claim that his supervisor, who was also gay, sexually harassed him. The court found that the jury, which awarded $238,328 in damages to the employee, received improper jury instructions. The jury should have been asked to decide whether the employee’s harassment complaint was a “substantial motivating factor”—not just “a motivating factor”—for the hospital firing him.

Romeo Mendoza was hired as a staff nurse by Western Medical Center Santa Ana in 1990. By 2010, he was a supervisor for the overnight shift and occasionally worked as the house supervisor–the individual in charge of the hospital. During the occasions that he served as the house supervisor, Del Erdmann was his supervisor. In October 2010, Mendoza reported to the hospital that Erdmann was sexually harassing him. He claimed that Erdmann had made sexual comments and exposed his genitals to Mendoza.

In an investigation by the hospital, where both men were interviewed together, Erdmann claimed that Mendoza instigated the tone of their conversation and assisted Erdmann in exposing himself. The hospital chose to believe Erdmann’s version of the incidents and fired both employees. Mendoza filed a lawsuit against the hospital claiming, among other things, wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

At trial, the jury found in favor of Mendoza. On appeal, the hospital argued that the jury was not properly instructed to decide whether Mendoza’s sexual harassment complaint was a “substantial motivating factor” in the hospital’s decision to fire him. In addition, the hospital requested a judgment in its favor on the basis that it fired both employees—an action that the hospital argued proved it acted in good faith.

The California Court of Appeal relied on the Supreme Court of California’s decision in Harris v. City of Santa Monica in finding that the jury should have been instructed that to prove Mendoza was wrongfully fired, he must show that “a substantial motivating reason for [his] firing was his report of sexual harassment.”

However, the court rejected the hospital’s request for a directed verdict stating, “Perhaps defendants were substantially motivated by a desire to rid themselves of an individual who had become problematic by reason of his reporting sexual harassment, without regard to the accuracy of his accusations.”

The court also discussed the alleged shortcomings of the hospital’s investigation, noting that the jury should decide whether “[t]he lack of a rigorous investigation” by the hospital shows that it had a retaliatory motive.

According to Tom McInerney, the managing shareholder of the San Francisco office of Ogletree Deakins: “This case provides helpful clarification in an area of the law that is fraught with confusion. Because the court adopted the higher ‘substantial motivating factor’ standard, jurors can better understand that liability should not be imposed only for mere thoughts or passing statements that may be unrelated to the challenged employment action. The court’s decision will also hopefully provide more uniformity among courts when confronting discrimination cases.”

McInerney added: “The Mendoza court also makes clear that when confronted with conflicting stories during an investigation, an employer is not relieved from liability if it fires the alleged harasser and the accuser. Rather, it needs to conduct a thorough investigation and make a good faith decision based on the results of that investigation.”

Note: This article was published in the February 2014 issue of the California eAuthority.

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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