Wrongful Termination: How do you prove your termination was caused by an illegal act?

Matthew Clarke | Kelley Clarke, PC

Trial Court Erred in Wrongful Termination Case

Another trial court has run afoul of the proper legal standard for causation in wrongful termination cases.  In Mendoza v. Western Medical Center Santa Ana, the plaintiff/employee claimed that after he reported sexual harassment, the employer fired him. He alleged that defendants retaliated against him for accusing his superior of sexual harassment.  Sound familiar?  Defendants, on the other hand, claimed that Mendoza willingly participated in sexual misconduct on the job as their motivation for firing Mendoza.

Defendants claimed Mendoza’s report only “caused” his firing by bringing his misconduct to his employer’s attention.  Defendants concede it is against public policy to fire employees because they report actual sexual harassment.  The Defendant argued that it is not against public policy for employers to fire employees after the employer determines in good faith that the employee actually participated in sexual misconduct on the job.

The main issue on appeal was the jury instruction on causation.  First, the jury instruction read: “That Romeo Mendoza’s report of sexual harassment by Del Erdmann was the motivating reason for Romeo Mendoza’s discharge.” (bold/underlining added.)

This jury instruction modified the 2012 version of CACI No. 2430 by substituting “the motivating reason” rather than “a motivating reason”).

The special verdict form submitted to the jury was even worse for the employee: “Was Romeo Mendoza’s report of sexual harassment by Del Erdman the reason for [defendants’] decision to discharge Romeo Mendoza.” (Italics added.)

This also changed the CACI verdict form from “a motivating reason” to “the motivating reason” or “the reason”.  The jury would be left with the idea that the plaintiff’s burden could only be satisfied if there were only one reason motivating the decision to fire Mendoza.

The jury submitted a question on this very topic.  The trial court clarified:   “Pursuant to the Jury Instruction . . . , the plaintiff must prove that his report of Sexual Harassment was a motivating reason for his discharge.”  This was based on the 2012 version of the CACI jury instruction forms.

The language of CACI jury instruction 2430, Effective on June 2013, provides: “That [wrongful conduct inserted] was a substantial motivating reason for [name of plaintiff]’s discharge.” The corresponding special verdict form also inserted updated language (“a substantial motivating reason”). (CACI No. VF-2406.) This is the language approved by the California Supreme Court in Harris v. City of  Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203.

Kelley Clarke, PC attorneys have a lot of experience in wrongful termination lawsuits and other employment matters.  Even if you are an at-will employee, an employer cannot terminate you for an illegal reason.