Key Decisions

November 2012- It Was Not Error To Instruct the Jury

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | November 20, 2012)

It Was Not Error To Instruct The Jury That “Motivating Reason” Is The Standard Of Causation In A Wrongful Termination Case

Alamo v. Practice Management Information Corporation
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed September 24, 2012

Lorena Alamo sued her former employer, Practice Management Information Corporation (PMIC), for pregnancy discrimination and retaliation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.  A jury awarded Alamo compensatory damages, but no punitive damages.  The court then awarded her attorney’s fees.

PMIC appealed.

PMIC argued that the trial court committed prejudicial error in instructing the jury pursuant to CACI Nos. 2430, 2500, 2505, and 2507, that Alamo had to prove her pregnancy-related leave was “a motivating reason” for her discharge rather than that she would not have been fired “but for” it.  PMIC also argued that the trial court committed prejudicial error in refusing to instruct the jury pursuant to BAJI No. 12.26, that PMIC could avoid liability under a mixed motive defense by proving it would have made the same discharge decision in the absence of any discriminatory or retaliatory motive.  PMIC also argued that the trial court erred in awarding attorney’s fees to Alamo as the prevailing plaintiff under FEHA.  It based this on the assertion that the general verdict form failed to specify whether the jury’s verdict was based on the statutory FEHA claim or the common law wrongful discharge claim.

The Court of Appeal affirmed.

The court noted that the question of the proper standard of causation in a FEHA claim, including the availability of a mixed motive defense, is currently pending before the California Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica, review granted April 22, 2010, S181004 (Harris).  It noted that language in other cases suggested that “a motivating reason” was the proper standard.  As a result, pending further guidance on this issue by the Supreme Court, we conclude that the trial court did not commit any instructional error.

As to whether the trial court should have given a “mixed motive defense” instruction, the court held that because this case was tried by both parties as a single motive, it was not a mixed motive case.

As to PMIC’s assertion of error in the attorney’s fees award, the court ruled it was barred by the doctrine of invited error.  Additionally, given the relationship between the causes of action, it was not an abuse of discretion for the trial court to award attorney’s fees.