Eunices Argueta began working at Menzies Aviation, a freight operations company in El Segundo, California, in 2008 when she was 18 years old. From about 2008 to 2014, Argueta and Dzung Nguyen worked for Menzies at a location near Los Angeles International Airport.
In October 2014, Worldwide acquired Menzies; Argueta and Nguyen continued to work for Worldwide. Argueta was a lead agent in the import department; her supervisor was Sonia Flores. Nguyen worked as their manager. When Flores was not present, Argueta worked as the acting supervisor and oversaw the work of other agents.
In November 2016, Worldwide hired Maria Diaz as its Director of Human Resources for its western region. Before Diaz, there was no human resources director at Worldwide’s Los Angeles Airport location.
In November 2016 and January 2017, several employees whom Argueta supervised submitted written complaints to Worldwide about Argueta, accusing her of bullying, harassment, retaliation, yelling, making threats and other bad behavior, including discriminating against a pregnant subordinate. Although Argueta moved in limine to preclude admission of the substance of the complaints, the trial court not only allowed their admission but ruled that the entire text of the complaints could be admitted. So Argueta’s attorneys preemptively asked Worldwide’s Diaz to read the written complaints aloud to the jury.
In January 2017, Diaz met with Argueta to discuss these complaints. Diaz testified she told Argueta that if her behavior did not improve, she would be terminated. Argueta gave a different account of the meeting, testifying she was not expressly threatened with termination.
In early May 2017, Urania Chavarria, one of the authors of a complaint that has been admitted into evidence, became upset because she believed that Argueta picked up and ate almost all of the chocolate bar Chavarria had left on her desk, leaving only a tiny piece. Argueta claimed she broke off only a small piece. When her supervisor Flores questioned her about the chocolate, Argueta said she only took a little piece. Flores reviewed a surveillance video and accused Argueta of lying.
In her complaint, Argueta alleged Nguyen began sexually harassing her in 2016. On May 11, 2017, Nguyen placed Argueta “out of service” while the matter was investigated; this essentially meant she was placed on paid leave. Argueta subsequently claimed many more acts of harassment. Worldwide conducted an investigation of Argueta’s complaint, although Argueta contends it was not thorough.
Diaz, facility assistant general manager Javier Trujillo, and facility general manager John Oh then met with Nguyen. Nguyen admitted some but not all the acts Argueta alleged. As a result of the investigation, Worldwide issued a “Letter of Concern” to Nguyen stating that Nguyen had admitted to some actions “that can easily be construed as sexual harassment” and “[t]his is a violation of our policy.” Worldwide imposed a number of conditions on Nguyen’s continued employment: undergo additional sexual harassment training; cease sending emojis to subordinates; use “appropriate language”; keep a minimum of three feet from employees; and not make any physical contact with an employee without their express permission.
When Argueta returned from leave in June 2017, she was transferred to a different floor and assigned to a different client; she worked for the client’s manager and was supervised only by Trujillo. Her pay remained the same. In February 2018, Argueta resigned from Worldwide. She stated she resigned because her new schedule was not compatible with her family responsibilities and her new position offered diminished potential to advance.
In 2019, three female Worldwide employees made written complaints that Nguyen was sexually harassing them. Some of the actions occurred as far back as 2017. Worldwide’s (new) local human resources manager for the Los Angeles Airport facility investigated the complaints and found Nguyen had violated Worldwide’s sexual harassment policy and the conditions in the Letter of Concern. Worldwide terminated Nguyen in March 2019.
Argueta filed this action against Worldwide, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA), and failure to prevent both. After the jury returned a defense verdict she filed a motion for a new trial and a motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict. The trial court denied both motions. Argueta appealed, contending the trial court’s admission of evidence of the substance of other employees’ complaints about her to Worldwide was erroneous and warrants a new trial. The Court of Appeal agreed in the published case of Argueta v. Worldwide Flight Services, Inc -B306910 (November 2023). It agreed that admission of the substance of the complaints against Argueta was prejudicial error and reverse the trial court’s denial of her motion for a new trial. The judgment was reversed and the matter is remanded for a new trial.
A party is entitled to a new trial when an irregularity in the proceedings, or any order of the court or abuse of discretion, “materially affect[s] the substantial rights of such party” and prevents them from having a fair trial. (Code Civ. Proc., § 657(1).)
As a general matter, the denial of a motion for new trial is reviewed for abuse of discretion, with the appellate court making an independent determination as to whether any error was prejudicial. The most fundamental rule of appellate review is that the judgment or order challenged on appeal is presumed to be correct, and it is the appellant’s burden to affirmatively demonstrate error.
“Here, the employee complaints about appellant fit the quintessential definition of prejudice. The trial court failed to recognize that the evidence had a high potential for undue prejudice. It is, as Argueta contends, character evidence. The complaints show her as mean, rude, lazy, and dishonest. “
“The trial court gave a limiting instruction on this evidence, and such instructions can ameliorate section 352 prejudice. Indeed, they are generally considered effective. Limiting instructions are less effective, however, when there is little or no probative value to the evidence and it has a high potential for prejudice.” … “It simply and vaguely told the jury that “the complaints of other employees about Ms. Argueta are not being received for the truth of those complaints; rather, they are being received for the effect on Ms. Argueta when she was told about those complaints.”
“We find her arguments on appeal sufficient. We agree with Argueta that the high potential for undue prejudice from admission of the substance of the complaints far outweighed the very minimal probative value of that evidence, and a limiting instruction would not be effective under the circumstances of this case.”
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