Error in Jury Instruction Prompts New Trial in Sexual Harassment Case

A nurse, fired after reporting sexual harassment he received at the hands of one of his supervisors, saw his nearly quarter-million damages award evaporate when the California Court of Appeal awarded his employer a new trial. In order to succeed on a claim of illegal retaliation, the law requires the employee to show that his reporting of harassment was a substantial motivation for the termination. Because the trial court only asked a jury to decide if the nurse’s report factored into the hospital’s decision-making at all, the verdict was flawed.

Romeo Mendoza had been a nurse at the Western Medical Center Santa Ana, with a stellar employment record, for more than two decades when he reported to a hospital supervisor about the sexual harassment he received from his immediate supervisor, Del Erdmann. Mendoza claimed that Erdmann made crude and offensive sexual comments, blew into his ear and exposed himself.

The hospital investigated and Erdmann claimed that he and Mendoza, both of whom are gay, were engaged in consensual flirtation at work and that Mendoza initiated many of the interactions. The hospital fired both men, concluding that each engaged in “inappropriate and unprofessional behavior.”

Mendoza sued, accusing the hospital of firing him in retaliation for his reporting Erdmann’s harassment. The hospital claimed it terminated the nurse as a result of his inappropriate sexual conduct at work, not the report. The trial court instructed the jury that, if it concluded that Mendoza’s report was a motivating reason for the termination, it should find in favor of the nurse. The jury found that the hospital wrongfully terminated Mendoza and awarded him $238,000.

The victory was fleeting, though, as the hospital won a new trial on appeal. The appellate court explained that the trial court’s instructions to the jury set the bar too low for finding in favor of the nurse. An employee must prove, not just that his protected conduct was a motivating reason for the firing, but a substantial motivating reason for that action by the employer.

The hospital did not convince the court to throw out the nurse’s case entirely, though. The hospital’s assertion that its simultaneous termination of Erdmann demonstrated its lack of improper motive proved unpersuasive. The appellate court pointed out that protecting Erdmann was not the only possible reason the hospital might inappropriately fire Mendoza; rather, the termination may have been the employer’s way of eliminating an employee who, by reporting a potential instance of harassment, had become “problematic” for the hospital.

The law creates certain protections for employees when they report actions like sexual harassment, as one should not lose one’s job simply for reporting illegal activity. Defending your right to be free of such wrongful termination can be a complicated legal process, so you should not go it alone. Instead, call the Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch. Our employment attorneys have the skill and dedication to help you defend your ability to earn a living and be free of harassment on the job.

Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-2575 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More Blogs:

Employee’s Criminal Conviction Defeats Discrimination Claim, Regardless of Employer’s Motives, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Dec. 27, 2013

Employee Allowed to Pursue Claim of Discrimination Based Upon Intent to Donate Organ, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, Nov. 15, 2013

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