(Source: CDF Labor Law, by Lindsay A. Ayers – December 15, 2023)

In 2008, Eunices Argueta was hired by a freight operations company in El Segundo, CA that was eventually acquired by Worldwide Flight Services, Inc. in late 2016. In early 2017, five of her subordinates filed written complaints against her, making claims that she was threatening, harassing, bullying, discriminatory, and emotionally abusive.

In May 2017, Argueta’s supervisor, Dzung Nguyen, placed her on paid leave during an investigation into a dispute between Argueta and one of her co-workers. On the last day of Argueta’s leave, she filed a complaint with Worldwide against Nguyen for sexual harassment. It included claims that he inappropriately touched her face, hair, and body multiple times; called her “my baby,” “my sweet heart,” and “my girl;” and messaged her using inappropriate emojis for the workplace.

Just over one year later, Argueta resigned. One year after that, Worldwide fired Nguyen as a result of an investigation into additional claims filed against him by other employees alleging sexual harassment. The claims were similar allegations to those lodged by Argueta.

Argueta sued Worldwide for sexual harassment and retaliation, and the jury returned a verdict in Worldwide’s favor. Before trial, Argueta moved in limine to preclude the substance of the various complaints, filed against her by her co-workers, from evidence on the grounds that they were prejudicial. When the court allowed the complaints to be read into evidence at trial and the jury found for the defense, she filed a motion for a new trial. The trial court denied her motion.

Argueta appealed. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, ordering a new trial of Argueta’s claims. The Court found that the admission of the evidence against Argueta was a prejudicial error. Specifically, the Court held that the “jury should be given the opportunity to evaluate Argueta’s credibility, untainted by improper evidence.”

While a trial court has the discretion to exclude evidence “if its probative value is substantially outweighed by the probability that its admission will (a) necessitate undue consumption of time or (b) create substantial danger of undue prejudice, of confusing the issues, or of misleading the jury” (Evidence Code Section 352), the Court of Appeals found that the trial court failed to recognize that the substance of the complaints had a high potential for undue prejudice. Specifically, the Court found that the substance of the complaints against Argueta was irrelevant to assessing whether or not she was offended by Nguyen’s conduct, it affected her perception of Nguyen’s conduct, and/or she had motive to fabricate any of her allegations regarding Nguyen’s conduct.

As a result, employers may now have more difficulty introducing relevant character evidence at trial. This includes, for example, to support claims of motive for a plaintiff making their complaint or the issue of plaintiff’s credibility, even when made by no less than five employees.

If your business finds itself facing harassment allegations, you may need to reassess your strategy. Our human resource experts here at CalWorkSafety & HR can help. Our team is experienced in all aspects of California workplace regulations and can help you navigate this often-complicated arena. Contact us at https://www.calworksafety.com/contact-us or call (949) 413-6821.