California Decides Awaited Mixed-Motive Discrimination Case

The California Supreme Court has decided a long-awaited mixed-motive discrimination case of Harris v. Santa Monica (Cal. 2013).

In that case, a bus driver, Harris, sued after being discharged the same day that she submitted a doctor’s note saying that she could work during her pregnancy with some restrictions. The City of Santa Monica said that it terminated Harris for poor work performance including two accidents and tardiness. Harris’s situation presented a mixed-motive theory of discrimination. Mixed motive discrimination cases are those where the employer is alleged to have both legal (e.g., poor performance) and illegal (e.g., pregnancy discrimination) bases for a making an employment decision.    

At trial, the jury was instructed to determine whether Harris’s pregnancy was a “motivating” factor in her termination. The California Supreme Court held, however, that this was not the proper standard to apply in mixed-motive cases under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act, and vacated a jury verdict in Harris’s favor. 

The court said that the proper standard in such cases is for plaintiffs to how that bias was a “substantial” factor in the discharge or other employment decision. If a plaintiff makes this showing, the employer could limit its liability by showing that it would have made the same decision for the nondiscriminatory reason. Then, the plaintiff would only be able to recover declaratory or injunctive relief, not monetary damages, although a court could still award the plaintiff attorneys’ fees. 

Two good pieces of news for California employers from this case are that it raises the standard of proof for plaintiffs in mixed-motive cases under the FEHA, and it gives employers the chance to limit their liability.  The bad news is that the remedies still available can be substantial, particularly attorneys’ fees awards.