Ready to terminate? Wait a Second – Lessons from Goodson v. County of Plumas

May 3, 2024 |


In Goodson v. County of Plumas, the United States District Court for the Eastern District of California held that despite having a valid reason to terminate an employee, the employer was still liable for retaliation under state but not federal law.  (E.D. Cal. July 21, 2023) 2023 WL 4678990.  This case serves as a reminder for employers to be diligent in understanding the nuanced differences between state and federal standards when considering employee termination, and to be proactive in seeking legal guidance even when it appears a legitimate reason for termination exists.

Factual Background

Tiffany Goodson, a former correctional officer in Plumas County, California, reported allegations of sexual assault and harassment against her supervising sergeant, Brandon Compton.  In response, the Sheriff’s Office investigated her claims against Compton.  Ultimately, Compton admitted to some of the sexual misconduct and resigned prior to completion of the investigation.  Two weeks following Compton’s resignation, the County put Goodson on administrative leave to investigate her for separate allegations of sexual misconduct with an inmate.  The investigation revealed that Goodson engaged in explicit sexual conversations and off-duty calls with the inmate.  Consequently, Goodson was terminated.

The Court’s Decision

Goodson filed suit in federal court asserting retaliation theories under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and Title VII of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, among other claims.  Following a bench trial, the Court ruled in favor of Goodson on her state law retaliation claim, while finding for the County on Goodson’s federal law retaliation claim, due to the distinct legal standards elaborated below.

California – substantial motivating factor test

The FEHA makes it unlawful for employers to terminate an individual for opposing a prohibited employment practice, such as harassment.  Cal. Gov’t Code, § 12940, subd. (h).  In such cases of retaliation, courts employ a three-part burden-shifting framework.

Initially, the burden rests on the plaintiff to demonstrate the occurrence of retaliation.  A plaintiff must therefore establish: (1) they engaged in a protected activity, (2) they were subjected to adverse employment actions by their employer, and (3) there was “a causal link” between the protected activity and the adverse action.  The Court concluded that Goodson established all three elements because she complained of Compton’s sexual misconduct, and was terminated shortly after making her complaint.  With Goodson meeting her burden, a presumption arose that the County retaliated against her by terminating her employment shortly after reporting her superior’s alleged misconduct.

However, California courts permit an employer to rebut this presumption by demonstrating that the decision to terminate the employee was grounded in legitimate, non-retaliatory reasons.  Accordingly, the County contended that its decision to terminate Goodson stemmed from a legitimate, non-retaliatory cause, citing Goodson’s inappropriate relationship with the inmate and dishonesty about the relationship during her employment.

As the County provided a legitimate rationale for its termination decision, the burden reverted to Goodson to establish that the County’s termination of her employment was pretextual.  Under the FEHA, a plaintiff prevails if they can prove that retaliation was a substantial motivating factor for the employer’s decision to terminate them.  Goodson succeeded in meeting her burden by showcasing the County’s retaliatory motive as a significant influencing factor behind her termination, notwithstanding any valid reasons.  The Court credited the fact that the County had been aware of Goodson’s relationship with the inmate for months but had only initiated an investigation after her report against Compton.  Goodson demonstrated that the investigation presented a convenient opportunity for disciplinary actions against her.  Therefore, the Court ruled that while the County presented a legitimate cause, the retaliation was a substantial motivating factor behind its decision to investigate and terminate Goodson, holding the County liable under California law.

Federal – but-for standard

The Court, however, took a different approach on the retaliation claim under federal law.  Federal law necessitates the plaintiff to demonstrate that but for a retaliatory motive, the employer would not have terminated the employee.  Consequently, Goodson was tasked with casting doubt on all legitimate reasons articulated by the County for her termination in order for the Court to rule in her favor under federal law.  In essence, Goodson needed to prove that the County would not have terminated her if she had not reported Compton—a considerably higher threshold than California law.  Doubts arose regarding whether the County would have eventually terminated Goodson because of her inappropriate relationship with the inmate.  Thus, the Court ruled in favor of the County, absolving it of liability for retaliation under federal law.

Takeaways for employers

  • Employers must assess all risks under federal and state law, even when it seems they are ‘in the clear’ because there are legitimate reasons to terminate an employee.
  • The timing and manner of terminating employees may create liability, and therefore, employers should consult with an employment attorney when terminating an employee who has engaged in protected conduct.