University Did Not Need To Put Reason For Termination In Letter For At-Will Employee

CATEGORY: Private Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Private Education
DATE: Dec 22, 2023

In 2014, California State University (CSU) hired Jorge Martin as the director of university communications at CSU Northridge’s Marketing and Communications Department.

In March 2016, a CSU employee whom Martin supervised filed a complaint with CSU’s Equity and Diversity Department (E&D) against Martin.  The complaint alleged racial discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.  After conducting an investigation, E&D concluded that Martin did not violate CSU policies.

In fall 2016, Martin supervised a temporary employee, who filed a second complaint with E&D, alleging that Martin harassed and discriminated against her based on her sexual orientation.  This employee complained that Martin made a suggestive comment to a coworker and complained that Martin wanted to exclude LGBTQ-related content from CSU’s weekly publication.

E&D’s second investigation found that Martin did not discriminate against or harass this second employee, however, Martin did create a hostile work environment when considering the actions taken in totality.  In response, Martin was issued a Memorandum of Counseling, ordered to complete sensitivity training, and ordered to attend management coaching sessions with Human Resources.

In October 2017, a third employee came forward with a complaint against Martin, alleging harassment based on inappropriate comments and retaliation for this employee participating in the second investigation.  E&D found that Martin did not violate University policy with respect to the third complaint, but noted that Martin’s conduct fell below the standard reasonably expected of any employee, particularly one in a leadership position.

In May 2018, Martin spoke to a subordinate about newspaper articles published about him and the various investigations, telling the subordinate that the finding of hostile work environment was “highly questionable,” and that the investigations were biased against him.  This employee said Martin seemed very angry with the complainants and asked the subordinate if she was on his side about 10 times.

In June 2018, CSU terminated Martin.  Martin’s supervisor brought notes to the meeting and offered comments to Martin verbally.  CSU’s termination letter did not specify the basis for Martin’s termination.

In August 2018, Martin filed a complaint against CSU alleging, among other claims, discrimination because he is a middle-aged, light-skinned, Mexican-American, heterosexual, and cisgender male.

The trial court granted summary judgment for CSU and Martin appealed.

To establish a claim of discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), a plaintiff must show: (1) he was a member of a protected class; (2) he was qualified for the position he sought or was performing competently in the position he held; (3) he suffered an adverse employment action; and (4) some other circumstance suggests discriminatory motive.  An employer may meet its initial burden in moving for summary judgment by presenting evidence that one or more elements of a prima facie case are lacking, or the employer acted for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.  If the employer puts forth a legitimate basis for the adverse employment action, the burden shifts to the plaintiff to present evidence showing the employer’s stated reason was a pretext for unlawful animus.

The trial court held that Martin could not establish a prima facie case of discrimination because Martin could not demonstrate that he was performing competently, or that discriminatory animus could be inferred.  The trail court also concluded that even assuming that Martin could establish a prima facie case, CSU provided evidence that CSU terminated Martin for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling and found that CSU had a legitimate basis for terminating Martin’s employment based on the results of the various investigations.  Through these investigations, CSU established that Martin created a hostile work environment, that Martin was counseled that his conduct fell below the standard that could be expected of an employee and supervisor, and that CSU had concerns about Martin’s ability to manage his department.

Further, the Court of Appeals found that Martin failed to provide evidence that the reasons CSU provided for terminating him were pretextual. Martin argued that the reason for his termination needed to be in writing; the Court of Appeals disagreed.  The Court found that CSU choosing to refrain from listing the bases for termination in the letter was not an indication that CSU was terminating Martin for a pretextual reason.  Rather, CSU did inform Martin of the bases for his termination in a meeting prior to giving him the letter.  The Court looked at CSU’s meeting notes, which emphasized that Martin was not able to focus on his work, that his conduct negatively impacted his ability to lead his team, and that he was no longer able to exercise discretion and clear managerial judgment.

The Court of Appeals upheld the trial court’s ruling and dismissed Martin’s claims.

Martin v. Board of Trustees of California State University (Nov. 14, 2023) __Cal.App.5th__ [2023 Cal. App. LEXIS 871].

Note: In this case, the University was able to support termination because they had extensive documentation of performance concerns and notes of what they discussed in the termination meeting.  Schools should build a record to support termination and contemporaneously document performance concerns prior to termination.


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