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Alamo v. Practice Management Information Corporation

California Court of Appeals, Second District, Seventh Division

August 21, 2013

LORENA ALAMO, Plaintiff and Respondent,
v.
PRACTICE MANAGEMENT INFORMATION CORPORATION, Defendant and Appellant.

APPEAL from a judgment of the Superior Court of Los Angeles County, No. BC416196 Rex Heeseman, Judge.

Neufeld, Marks & Gralnek and Paul S. Marks for Defendant and Appellant.

Employment Lawyers Group and Karl Gerber for Plaintiff and Respondent.

ZELON, J.

Appellant Practice Management Information Corporation (PMIC) appealed the judgment entered in favor of respondent Lorena Alamo following a jury trial on Alamo’s causes of action for pregnancy discrimination and retaliation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, Gov. Code § 12900 et seq. (FEHA), and wrongful termination in violation of public policy. Among other arguments, PMIC contended that the trial court erred in (1) instructing the jury pursuant to former CACI Instruction Nos. 2430, 2500, 2505, and 2507 that Alamo had to prove her pregnancy-related leave was “a motivating reason” for her discharge, and (2) refusing to instruct the jury pursuant to BAJI Instruction No. 12.26 that PMIC could avoid liability under a “mixed-motive” or “same-decision” defense by proving it would have made the same discharge decision in the absence of a discriminatory or retaliatory motive. We initially affirmed the judgment, and PMIC filed a petition for review with the Supreme Court. After granting the petition for review and deciding a related issue in Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203 (Harris), the Supreme Court directed this court to vacate our decision and to reconsider the cause in light of its decision in Harris.

In accordance with Harris, we now hold that the trial court prejudicially erred in instructing the jury with the former versions of CACI Nos. 2430, 2500, 2505, and 2507 because the proper standard of causation in a FEHA discrimination or retaliation claim is not “a motivating reason, ” as used in the CACI instructions, but rather “a substantial motivating reason, ” as set forth in Harris. We further hold that PMIC was not entitled to an instruction on the mixed-motive or same-decision defense because it failed to plead that defense or any other affirmative defense alleging that it had a legitimate, non-discriminatory or non-retaliatory reason for its discharge decision in its answer. We accordingly reverse the judgment and remand the matter to the trial court for further proceedings consistent with this opinion.

FACTUAL BACKGROUND AND PROCEDURAL HISTORY

Civil Action

Following the termination of her employment, Alamo filed a civil action against her former employer, PMIC. In her complaint, Alamo alleged three causes of action for pregnancy discrimination in violation of the FEHA and the California Constitution, wrongful termination in violation of public policy, and intentional infliction of emotional distress. After the trial court partially granted and partially denied PMIC’s motion for summary adjudication, the case was tried to a jury on Alamo’s statutory FEHA claim and common law wrongful discharge claim.

Trial Evidence

PMIC is a small company that publishes medical coding and compliance books. Alamo began her employment with PMIC in July 2006 where she worked as a clerk in the collections department. She was later promoted to the position of lead collections clerk and was primarily responsible for billing and collecting payments from PMIC’s largest customers. Alamo received regular pay raises during her employment, and as of January 2009, her base rate of pay was $18 per hour. Alamo’s direct supervisor was Michelle Cuevas, the Operations Manager. Cuevas in turn reported to Gregory Trupiano, PMIC’s Executive Vice-President, and to James Davis, PMIC’s founder and President.

On January 15, 2009, Alamo began a pregnancy-related leave of absence. Her baby was born approximately two weeks later on January 27, 2009. On February 18, 2009, Alamo requested an additional six weeks of maternity leave to bond with her baby, which was granted by PMIC. Alamo was scheduled to return to work on April 22, 2009.

While Alamo was on leave from PMIC, Marcell Moran was hired on a part-time temporary basis to fill Alamo’s position. Alamo had recommended that Moran fill in for her during her leave because Moran previously had worked at PMIC and remained good friends with Alamo. Moran began working in Alamo’s position in February 2009 and was paid $14 per hour for her part-time work. At that time, Moran was also pregnant with a due date in September 2009. Moran was planning on moving out of the Los Angeles area before the birth of her baby and only intended to work at PMIC on a temporary basis while Alamo was on leave.

Prior to Alamo’s leave of absence, Cuevas had some concerns about Alamo’s performance, but did not consider any of these problems to be serious enough to warrant formal discipline. Cuevas testified that there were times when Alamo failed to timely contact customers about invoices that were past due and Cuevas had to remind Alamo to follow up on those accounts. Cuevas also testified that Alamo at times had poor working relationships with other employees, some of whom complained that Alamo treated them rudely. In addition to orally counseling Alamo about improving her interpersonal skills, Cuevas sent an email to her subordinates in January 2007 reminding them to treat all PMIC employees in a professional manner. However, Cuevas never felt that it was necessary to issue Alamo any written warnings about her performance prior to her leave.

During Alamo’s leave of absence, Cuevas became aware of other performance problems that caused her more concern. Cuevas specifically testified that she learned Alamo had not taken any action on certain customer accounts with large unpaid invoices even though Cuevas had requested that Alamo resolve those accounts before her leave. Cuevas also testified that Alamo had told her that PMIC could not collect on two outstanding accounts because the customers were no longer in business, which Cuevas later learned was untrue. According to Cuevas, PMIC had to take a loss on some of Alamo’s accounts because too much time had passed to collect payment from the customer. Cuevas intended to discuss these recently-discovered performance issues with Alamo once she returned from her leave in April 2009. To that end, Cuevas advised Alamo not to return to work until April 22, 2009, when Cuevas would be back in the office from vacation.

Alamo denied that she had any performance problems at PMIC. She testified that the customer accounts that PMIC was claiming Alamo had neglected were actually assigned to Cuevas and that Cuevas merely had asked Alamo to assist her by following up on certain unpaid invoices, which Alamo did. Alamo also testified that she was never counseled by Cuevas, either orally or in writing, about her interpersonal skills in working with other employees.

In mid-April 2009, approximately one week before her scheduled return date, Alamo requested and received permission from Trupiano to come into the office to have lunch with a coworker, Maria Alcocer. Alamo did not ask Cuevas for permission to visit the office at that time because it was her understanding that Cuevas was on vacation. On April 17, 2009, Alamo had lunch with Alcocer in PMIC’s break room. As Alamo was leaving, she had a verbal altercation with Moran, the person filling in for her, in the hallway outside the office. The argument began because Moran wanted to know why Alamo had not given Moran her new cell phone number. According to Moran, Alamo said that she was having a lot of personal problems and did not want to talk to anyone. Alamo also said that she felt Moran was being mean to their coworker, Alcocer. According to Alamo, Moran initiated the argument, yelled at her in an angry manner, and then told Alamo, “Well, that’s good, you’re going to get fired anyways.” Later that day, Alamo contacted both Trupiano and Cuevas by telephone and asked them about Moran’s statement that Alamo was going to be fired. Cuevas told Alamo that they would discuss the matter when Alamo returned to work the following week.

Shortly after Alamo left the office, Moran had a separate verbal altercation with Alcocer. Alcocer and Moran had been having a personality conflict for several months that escalated into an argument that day. As described by Alcocer, Moran approached her desk and began yelling at her because Alcocer recently had complained to Cuevas that Moran was being rude to her. Moran told Alcocer that she should talk to Moran directly about any problems between them instead of complaining to Cuevas. After the argument with Moran, Alcocer decided to take a stress-related leave of absence because she felt that Moran and another employee named Elaine Rodriguez were being verbally abusive to her. Alcocer began her leave on April 20, 2009, and she did not return to work until four months later in August 2009.

On April 22, 2009, Alamo returned to work from her maternity leave. After working for about three hours, Alamo was called into a meeting with Cuevas and Trupiano and told that her employment was being terminated. According to Alamo, Cuevas said during the meeting that she felt Alamo was not doing her job and specifically mentioned one unpaid account. There was no mention of Alamo’s recent visit to the office for lunch with Alcocer or to her verbal altercation with Moran. There was also no mention of Alamo’s pregnancy or maternity leave. At the end of the meeting, Cuevas explained that if Alamo signed a release ...


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