University Had Legitimate Basis For Terminating At-Will Employee And Did Not Need To State The Reasons For Termination In Writing

CATEGORY: Public Education Matters
CLIENT TYPE: Public Education
DATE: Dec 28, 2023

Jorge Martin was Director of University Communications in the Marketing and Communications Department at California State University (CSU), Northridge.  Several employees filed complaints against Martin for discrimination, harassment, and retaliation.

Between March 2016 and October 2017, three separate employees made complaints that Martin had discriminated against them.  The first complaint alleged racial discrimination, the second complaint alleged sexual orientation discrimination, and the third complaint alleged gender discrimination.  CSU’s Equity and Diversity Department (E&D) conducted three investigations and concluded that each of the discrimination allegations were not sustained.

Although the complaints of harassment and discrimination were not sustained, E&D still found fault in Martin’s conduct.  In the second investigation, E&D concluded that Martin had not discriminated against the employee based on her sexual orientation, but he had made inappropriate remarks that created a hostile work environment based on gender.  Martin’s direct supervisor and the Vice President of University Advancement issued him a Memorandum of Counseling.  It ordered Martin to complete sensitivity training and attend management coaching sessions with Human Resources.  It also said “there must be immediate and sustained changes” in Martin’s interpersonal interactions and that a failure to change could have a negative impact on his position with the university.

After the third investigation, E&D concluded that Martin had not engaged in gender discrimination, but his conduct fell below the standard expected of an employee in a leadership position.  E&D issued a Notice of Investigation Outcome which prohibited Martin from retaliating against investigation participants and requested that he exercise discretion in disclosing information from the investigation.

In May 2018, the university’s student newspaper published an article about the first complaint against Martin.  That same month, the second complainant authored an opinion piece about her complaint.  Martin was noticeably upset by the articles and angrily discussed both the articles and the investigations with his direct reports and colleagues, many of whom had participated in the investigations.

Later in May 2018, one of Martin’s subordinates complained that Martin’s discussions of the investigations made her uncomfortable.  She said he asked her if she was on his side approximately 10 times.  Martin’s supervisor interviewed employees about Martin’s conduct and found that several others had concerns or found his conduct intimidating.  CSU terminated Martin in June 2018.

Martin sued CSU for discrimination and harassment in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  FEHA prohibits an employer from subjecting an employee to adverse employment action based on a protected status.  Martin claimed that CSU fired him based on his status as a middle-aged, light-skinned, Mexican American, heterosexual, cis-gendered man.

To bring a discrimination claim under FEHA, a plaintiff must show that: (1) he was a member of a protected class, (2) he was qualified for the position or was performing competently, (3) he suffered an adverse employment action, and (4) some other circumstance suggests discriminatory motive.  There must be a connection between the adverse employment action and the protected status.  An employer may have a case dismissed through summary judgment by showing that it acted for a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason.  If the employer puts forth a legitimate basis for the adverse employment action, the plaintiff can avoid summary judgment by showing that the employer’s stated reason was a pretext for unlawful discrimination.

CSU asked the trial court to dismiss the case through a motion for summary judgment.  The trial court agreed, concluding that CSU had legitimate non-discriminatory reasons for terminating Martin.  Martin appealed and presented multiple arguments to show that CSU’s stated reasons for terminating him were mere pretext for discrimination.

First, Martin argued that CSU had not provided a consistent explanation for his termination.  In particular, his termination letter did not describe why he was being terminated.  The court of appeal held that no law required CSU to list the reasons for termination in an at-will employee’s termination letter.  Martin’s supervisor and the Associate Vice President of HR discussed the reasons with Martin in person.  Their reasons for firing him were consistent and all related to their conclusion that Martin was unable to be an effective manager.

Martin then argued that the investigations did not treat him fairly.  He accused CSU of not doing enough to verify the truth of employee statements against him.  He also claimed the E&D investigators were biased against him because he is a man and only women worked in the E&D office.  He also sought to admit evidence that, since 2011, E&D had sustained more complaints against men than against women.  The court of appeal held that such arguments were insufficient to show that CSU’s legitimate reasons for firing Martin were pretext for discrimination.

Martin further argued that he was silenced and fired for discussing the investigations and news articles.  However, one of the complainants had also discussed the investigation with colleagues.  The court of appeal pointed out that Martin and the complainant were not similarly situated employees, she was a temporary subordinate and he was a manager expected to show leadership.  Additionally, his supervisors had already warned him not to create a toxic environment or harass or retaliate against employees who participated in the investigations.

Finally, Martin argued that CSU’s commitment to diversity was evidence of pretext against him.  The court of appeal disagreed and held that CSU’s general commitment to diversity did not provide sufficient insight into the motivations of his supervisor or the VP of HR, the individuals who terminated Martin.

The court of appeal affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment, dismissing Martin’s discrimination and harassment claims.

Martin v. Board of Trustees of California State University (2023) 97 Cal.App.5th 149 [315 Cal.Rptr.3d 117].

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.  Employers should build a record to support termination and contemporaneously document performance concerns prior to termination.

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