California Supreme Court Ruling on Discrimination Case Involving Mixed Motive May Impact Fair Employment and Housing Claims

On February 7, 2013, the California Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision in a case – Harris v. City of Santa Monica – that involved the “mixed motive” theory where the employer has both legitimate and discriminatory reasons for job actions such as termination and discipline. The Court ruled an employer can defeat an employee’s claim for damages in a discrimination case by proving with a preponderance of evidence it would have terminated the employee anyway for lawful reasons.  The ruling on Harris v. City of Santa Monica is available at http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S181004A.PDF.

The 44 page decision by the California Supreme Court affirmed that even after a plaintiff proves to a jury that discrimination was a substantial motivating factor in his or her termination, under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) the employer is entitled to demonstrate that “legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons would have led it to make the same decision at the time.  If the employer proves by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision for lawful reasons, then the plaintiff cannot be awarded damages, back pay, or an order of reinstatement.”

According to court documents, the plaintiff was employed as a bus driver trainee for a bus service owned by the City of Santa Monica. She was involved with what was determined to be two preventable accidents in the first five months of employment and was evaluated as needing further development. Soon after, she told her supervisor she was pregnant.  When she was terminated, the plaintiff sued the City alleging she was fired due to her pregnancy in violation of the prohibition on sex discrimination in the FEHA. The defendant claimed the plaintiff was fired for legitimate and non-discriminatory reasons since she was an at-will probationary employee with performance problems.

The case was tried before a jury. At trial, the City asked the court to instruct the jury that if it found a “mixed motive” of discriminatory and legitimate motives, the City could avoid liability by proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led it to make the same decision to fire the plaintiff.  The trial court refused the instruction, and the jury ruled by a 9-3 vote that the plaintiff’s pregnancy was a motivating reason for her termination and she was awarded approximately $200,000 for lost wages and emotional distress damages. The City appealed the ruling and argued the judge refused the City’s request to issue the jury instruction on “mixed motive.”  The Court of Appeal agreed and reversed the decision and ordered a new trial, holding that the requested instruction was legally correct and that refusal to give it was prejudicial error.

The plaintiff then appealed to the California Supreme Court, which held the Court of Appeal was correct in part and summarized its holding as follows: “In sum, we construe section 12940(a) as follows: When a plaintiff has shown by a preponderance of evidence that discrimination was a substantial factor motivating his or her termination, the employer is entitled to demonstrate that legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons would have led it to make the same decision at the time.  If the employer proves by a preponderance of evidence that it would have made the same decision for lawful reasons, then the plaintiff cannot be awarded damages, backpay or an order of restatement.  However, where appropriate, the plaintiff may be entitled to declaratory or injunctive relief [and] … may be eligible for an award of reasonable attorneys’ fees and costs …”

The impact of the decision of the California Supreme Court in the case of Harris v. City of Santa Monica could be far-reaching and may make it tougher for plaintiffs to succeed in certain FEHA claims. However, employers should continue to develop strategies and measures when deciding to terminate employees.

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Sources:

Harris v. City of Santa Monica http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S181004A.PDF

Hirschfeld Kraemer LLP eAlert – California Supreme Court Issues Major Decision in Key Discrimination Case: http://www.hkemploymentlaw.com/news/news.cfm?id=127

Fisher & Phillips LLP Legal Alert – California Supreme Court’s “Mixed Motive” Ruling May Have Major Impact on Fair Employment and Housing Claims: http://www.laborlawyers.com/california-supreme-courts-mixed-motive-ruling-may-have-major-impact-on-fair-employment-and-housing-claims

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