Irrelevant Complaints against a Plaintiff Are Inadmissible

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Irrelevant Complaints against a Plaintiff Are Inadmissible

Irrelevant Complaints against a Plaintiff Are Inadmissible

This week, in Argueta v. Worldwide Flight Services, Inc., the California Court of Appeals certified for publication its ruling that “when the evidence at issue involves prior bad acts, substantial prejudice is inherent in the evidence and its admission requires ‘extremely careful analysis.’” Under California Evidence Code 352, a court may exclude evidence if its probative value is substantially outweighed by a substantial danger of undue prejudice of confusing the issues or of misleading the jury. Evidence of prior bad acts that are not directly related to the causes of action in the matter, while potentially relevant for other purposes, can still be barred under evidence code 352. This includes the substance of previous complaints made against a Plaintiff, when those complaints don’t address any material fact of the causes of action.

In Argueta v. Worldwide Flight Services, Inc., the Plaintiff Eunices Argueta sued her former employer Worldwide Flight Services Inc. for sexual harassment and failure to prevent harassment by her manager under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).

In November 2016 and January 2017, several employees whom Argueta supervised submitted written complaints to Worldwide accusing her of bullying, harassment, retaliation, making threats and other bad behavior. In January of 2017, after the complaints were submitted, Maria Diaz, the company’s HR director overseeing Argueta’s location, held an investigation against Argueta regarding the complaints. During this investigation, Argueta was informed of the complaints, and it was disputed whether Argueta was told further action would lead to discipline or termination.

In May 2017, Argueta was then accused of lying by her direct supervisor, regarding taking chocolate from a co-worker. Argueta was placed on paid administrative leave by her manager Nguyen. Four days after being placed on leave, Argueta filed a formal written complaint against the same manager, Nguyen, alleging sexual harassment from 2016 till present. Worldwide Flight Services launched an investigation into Argueta’s complaint and Nguyen admitted that some of the physical actions that Argueta described as harassment, while disputing that they were sexual in nature. Based on this admission, Worldwide issued Nguyen a letter of concern and set forth conditions for him to continue to be employed.

Argueta returned to work in June 2017, but was moved to a different location and no longer reported to Nguyen. In February 2018, Argueta resigned from her position, citing a lack of advancement and conflicts with family responsibilities. In 2019, Nguyen was eventually terminated, after three more women complained of him sexually harassing them.

Prior to the commencement of trial, Argueta moved in limine to preclude admission of the substance of the previous complaints made against her and the documents which contained the complaints. The trial court not only allowed the admission of the documents but also the substance of the complaints. The trial court reasoned that the substance of the complaints, which were communicated to Argueta, could be used to examine Argueta during trial, to demonstrate her motive for making the complaint of sexual harassment at the time that she did it, rather than bringing the complaint earlier. The defense also used the complaints to show that Argueta was a person who spoke her mind, which co-workers complained about it as being rude, to demonstrate that the harassment was not severe or pervasive, or she would have complained about it sooner. Ultimately, the jury found in favor of the Defendant and Argueta filed a motion for a new trial and judgement notwithstanding the verdict. The trial court denied both motions, leading to Argueta’s appeal.

The Court of Appeal agreed with the trial court that the existence of the complaints was admissible for the purposes of demonstrating motive, but held that the substance of the complaints was inadmissible. The Court found that, under Section 352, the substance of the complaints were far more prejudicial than their very minimal probative value. The Court of Appeals reviewed the trial court’s actions for abuse of discretion, presuming the trial court’s judgment to be correct and placing the burden on the appellant to demonstrate error. The Court reasoned that the complaints were minimally relevant to show Argueta’s worry about being terminated based on the prior complaints, and to addressing her credibility. Additionally, the substance of the past complaints was minimally relevant, when placing Argueta on leave for a wholly independent reason in May 2017, because this May 2017 incident alone could have justified termination. However, the substance of the complaints did not address any of the material issues in the case, and did not assist in “assessing whether Argueta was offended by Nguyen’s actual conduct or whether she did not perceive it as severe and pervasive or whether she had a motive to fabricate or embellish the severity or pervasiveness of Nguyen’s conduct.” This substantially prejudicial evidence needed to have substantial probative value concerning the elements of the claims at issue to be admitted under 352, and failed to satisfy that standard.

Additionally, Defense counsel argued and used the evidence as improper character evidence to demonstrate that Argueta was being rude and dishonest to her co-workers, so should be presumed dishonest again in reporting Nguyen for sexual harassment. It was also improper character evidence to imply that because Argueta is outspoken, she would have complained sooner, if she were telling the truth.

The trial court’s limiting instruction in the final jury instructions was that “[d]uring the trial, certain evidence was admitted for a limited purpose. You may consider that evidence only for that purpose and for no other.” However, the defendant used the evidence for more than the limited purpose of assessing motive. As such, the Court of Appeal found that the limiting instruction was insufficient to alleviate undue prejudice. The Court held, importantly, that evidence with little or no probative value but with high potential for prejudice cannot be admitted with a simple limiting instruction. The evidence here was essentially character evidence, being used to attack the Plaintiff’s credibility, one of the key issues during trial.

After Argueta, evidence of a plaintiff’s past bad behavior may be excluded under 352 when it has little or no probative value concerning the claims being decided.

If you believe your employer has violated your workplace rights, contact Bryan Schwartz Law, P.C..


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