Employment Law Alert: Heightened Causation Standard in Wrongful Termination Case Affirmed

In Mendoza v. Western Medical Center Santa Ana, et al., No. G047394, published January 14, 2014 (Mendoza), the Court of Appeal held the trial court failed to properly instruct the jury that the unlawful conduct alleged by the plaintiff must be a substantial motivating reason for his discharge.

Plaintiff worked as a nurse at the defendant hospital. He alleged sexual harassment by a supervisor. After several alleged incidents, the plaintiff reported the harassment to defendant. The subsequent investigation of the plaintiff’s allegations resulted in termination of the plaintiff and his supervisor. Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the defendant alleging, among other things, wrongful termination in violation of public policy. At trial, the jury was instructed, over the defendant’s objection, in accordance with the express language of the 2012 version of CACI No. 2430, which provided that plaintiff need only show the defendant’s conduct was “a motivating reason” for his discharge to establish the causation element supporting his wrongful termination claim. The jury ultimately found the defendant liable and awarded damages. Defendant appealed the judgment.

On appeal, the defendant argued that the jury should have been instructed in accordance with Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203, which held that the causation element in discrimination lawsuits requires a finding that the alleged conduct was “a substantial motivating factor” for discharge or an adverse employment action. The court held that the holding in Harris applied in the context of plaintiff’s wrongful termination claim, noting that the revised 2013 version of CACI No. 2430 provided a “substantial motivating reason” standard. Concluding the trial court’s error was prejudicial, the court vacated the judgment and remanded for a new trial.

Mendoza is a welcome decision for employers because it confirms that plaintiffs must prove a direct and substantial relationship between the alleged conduct and the ultimate decision to terminate an employee.

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January 16, 2014