PROVING WORKPLACE DISCRIMINATION IS NOW MORE DIFFICULT IN CALIFORNIA « Law Offices of Timothy Bowles | Top Employment Law Firm in Los Angeles


State Supreme Court Issues an Employer-Favorable Decision in a “Mixed Motive” Case

In February, 2013, the California Supreme Court decided that even where illegal discrimination (e.g., racial, gender, age, religion) was one of a number of motivating factors in terminating a worker, the employer will not be liable for damages if it can show the business would have fired that person in any event for non-discriminatory reasons.

Wynona Harris v. City of Santa Monica was the Supreme Court’s long-anticipated decision in a “mixed motive” case, where a defendant employer is found to have terminated someone for improper, discriminatory reasons as well as legitimate business purposes.

Ms. Harris was a newly hired bus driver for the city.  She had a rocky start, including two accidents and two unexcused latenesses or no-shows.  Under the city’s point system, termination was warranted.

While her supervisors were deciding whether to fire Ms. Harris over these offenses, she announced she was pregnant, a circumstance protected against discrimination by California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  See, e.g., Bowles Law Office blogs “Pregnancy Disability Leave, California Employers’ Obligations” and “Expanded Pregnancy Health Benefits Law for Most California Employees.” The city nevertheless terminated Ms. Harris a few days later, citing the above performance problems. She sued Santa Monica for pregnancy and sex discrimination under FEHA.

At trial, the judge directed the jury that the city was liable for discrimination if the employee-plaintiff was able to prove that her pregnancy was a “motivating factor/reason for the discharge.”  The jury then found that Harris’s pregnancy  had in part motivated the city to terminate her, awarding her $177,905 in damages and $401,187 in attorneys’ fees.

However, the Supreme Court found the trial judge’s jury instruction had been mistaken. The court resolved that if the city can prove it would have terminated Ms. Harris even if she had not been pregnant at the time, then she will not be able to collect damages nor be reinstated.  While this poses a significant new barrier for plaintiffs to receive compensation for emotional distress or lost wages resulting from a “partly discriminatory” termination, the decision still permits injunctions and attorney fee awards against employers in such a “mixed motive” case.  Obviously, no employer is immune from complying fully with prohibitions against unlawful discrimination.

For help on how this decision might impact your business, please contact our firm’s attorneys Tim Bowles or Cindy Bamforth.

(Photo by Paul Sakuma, Associated Press)