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Mendoza v. Western Medical Center Santa ANA

California Court of Appeal, Fourth District, Third Division

January 14, 2014

Romeo MENDOZA, Plaintiff and Respondent,
WESTERN MEDICAL CENTER SANTA ANA et al., Defendants and Appellants.

Appeal from a judgment of the Superior Court of Orange County, Ronald L. Bauer, Judge. Reversed. (Super.Ct. No. 30-2011-00459349).

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[166 Cal.Rptr.3d 721] Vaughn & Vaughn, Donald A. Vaughn, San Diego, and Robert J. Bello for Defendants and Appellants.

C. Athena Roussos, Sacramento; The Lampel Firm and Eric P. Lampel for Plaintiff and Respondent.



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A jury voted nine to three to award $238,328 to plaintiff Romeo Mendoza, who claimed he was fired in retaliation for reporting allegations of sexual harassment. The court instructed the jury with the 2012 version of CACI No. 2430 and a special verdict form consistent therewith. Case law issued subsequent to the judgment leads us to conclude the court committed prejudicial error in doing so. (See Harris v. City of Santa Monica (2013) 56 Cal.4th 203, 152 Cal.Rptr.3d 392, 294 P.3d 49 ( Harris ); Alamo v. Practice Management Information Corp. (2013) 219 Cal.App.4th 466, 161 Cal.Rptr.3d 758 ( Alamo ).) We reject, however, defendants' contention that they are entitled to a defense judgment as a matter of law. Accordingly, we reverse the judgment for a new trial.

[166 Cal.Rptr.3d 722] FACTS

First hired as a staff nurse in 1990, Mendoza was employed at a hospital for more than 20 years.[1] By 2010, Mendoza was an intermediate-level supervisor on the overnight shift and even filled in periodically as the person in charge at the hospital (" House Supervisor" ). By all accounts, and as reflected by his long term of service and march up the ranks of authority, Mendoza was an excellent nurse. As defense counsel stated during a pretrial hearing, " we will stipulate he was a fine employee, he was performing his job competently, he received awards, he received commendations.... This is not a case where Mr. Mendoza was terminated because he performed his job in a substandard manner[,] because he made medical errors or anything of that nature."

In late October 2010, Mendoza reported to a House Supervisor that he was being sexually harassed by Del Erdmann, a per diem House Supervisor hired by defendants in April 2010. Whenever Mendoza and Erdmann worked the same shift, Erdmann was Mendoza's supervisor. After the complaint was passed up the chain of command, the matter was referred to the human resources department and an investigation ensued.

Mendoza and Erdmann are both gay men. The gist of Mendoza's accusation was that Erdmann, on numerous occasions, harassed Mendoza on the job

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with inappropriate comments (e.g., " I know you want me in your ass" ), physical contact (e.g., Erdmann blowing air in Mendoza's ear), and lewd displays (e.g., Erdmann showing his genitals to Mendoza). According to Mendoza's testimony, this behavior began in August 2010 with words and culminated in October with Erdmann exposing himself. Mendoza denied he consented to Erdmann's behavior. Mendoza denied he had ever willingly engaged in flirtatious or lewd conduct with Erdmann. Mendoza told Erdmann to stop. Mendoza admitted that he violated defendants' policy by not immediately reporting Erdmann's behavior. Mendoza ultimately complained about Erdmann's conduct after a second incident in which Erdmann exposed himself and sad, " I know you want this in your ass."

Erdmann, on the other hand, testified (and stated during defendants' investigation) that Mendoza consented to Erdmann's conduct and participated in other mutual interactions (e.g., Mendoza would bend over provocatively in front of Erdmann, Mendoza requested that Erdmann display his genitals, Mendoza assisted Erdmann in exposing his genitals). Indeed, Erdmann claimed he was a reluctant participant in conduct initiated by Mendoza. At both the investigation stage and at trial, Mendoza and Erdmann were the only two individuals identified with personal knowledge of what occurred between them at the hospital.

Mendoza's expert witness took issue with the quality of the investigation process. Defendants did not prepare a formal investigation plan. Defendants did not take written statements from Mendoza or Erdmann. Defendants did not immediately interview Erdmann, and suspended the investigation while Mendoza missed work for several weeks following a bicycle accident. When Mendoza returned to work, Mendoza and Erdmann were interviewed simultaneously rather than separately. Defendants did not interview anyone other than Mendoza and Erdmann (such as coworkers [166 Cal.Rptr.3d 723] who might provide insights as to the credibility of the two men). The individual charged with completing the investigation was not a trained human resources employee, but was instead the supervisor of Erdmann and Mendoza. On cross-examination, Mendoza's expert conceded he was unaware of any specific information that would have been uncovered had defendants conducted a proper (in the expert's view) investigation. But a subsequent witness (an employee who conducted Erdmann's orientation) testified that he noticed Erdmann making sexual innuendos during the orientation.

Upon the completion of the investigation, defendants fired both Mendoza and Erdmann on December 14, 2010. The written notice of termination provided by defendants to Mendoza cited " unprofessional conduct" as the reason for Mendoza's dismissal. According to their testimony, the individuals ...

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