In Mendoza v. Western Medical Center Santa Ana, ___ Cal.App.4th ___ (Jan. 14, 2014), the California Court of Appeal (Fourth Appellate District, Division Three) reversed the ruling of the Orange County Superior Court (Judge Bauer) instructing the jury in a wrongful termination lawsuit to use an older version of the Judicial Council of California Civil Jury Instructions (CACI) that was modified in June 2013 and applied to this lawsuit (consistent with case law).

Plaintiff was a nurse and intermediate-level supervisor who sued his former employer and supervisors for wrongful termination in violation of public policy on the grounds that he had been fired because he reported allegations of sexual harassment.  At trial, the court instructed the jury to use the 2012 version of CACI No. 2430 and a corresponding special verdict form in its deliberations.  Those forms tell the jurors that plaintiff must prove defendant’s conduct was “a motivating reason” for employment discharge.  The jury voted nine to three in plaintiff’s favor and awarded him $238,328 ($93,328 in past economic loss and $145,000 in past emotional distress).  The defendant employer appealed, arguing that the court’s failure to instruct the jury that defendant’s conduct must have been a “substantial” motivating reason was prejudicial error.

The appellate court agreed and reversed the judgment for a new trial.  The appellate court found that instruction used was prejudicial to defendant: “No other instructions provided to the jury could have cured the erroneous instruction with regard to the contested element. Viewing the evidence ‘in the light most favorable’ to defendants, there is a reasonable probability that the instructional error prejudicially affected the verdict.”  The court rejected, however, defendants’ argument that the evidence presented could not support a judgment in plaintiff’s favor under the “substantial motivating reason” standard.  Thus, it remanded for a new trial.