California Supreme Court Raises the Bar for Plaintiffs in Mixed Motive Employment Discrimination

A recent unanimous decision by the California Supreme Court offered both plaintiffs and defense lawyers some reasons to celebrate while denying either side a complete win.

In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, the court was asked to review the correct standard for determining liability in mixed motive discrimination cases.  Harris involved a city bus driver who claimed that she was fired because of her pregnancy in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The City claimed that Harris had been fired for poor job performance citing a number of accidents and probationary violations, which merited dismissal.

The City requested a jury instruction at trial that would limit its liability if the jury determined that mixed motives were involved in the termination.  Specifically, the City asked that the jury be instructed that if a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives led to the decision to fire Harris, the City would avoid liability by proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led to the same decision to fire her.

The trial court refused the requested instruction and instead instructed the jury that Harris had to prove that her pregnancy was a “motivating factor” for the termination, and defined “motivating factor” as “something that moves the will and induces action even though other matters may have contributed to the taking of the action.”  The jury concluded that Harris’ pregnancy was the motivating factor for her termination and awarded Harris $177,905 in damages.

The case was subsequently appealed and the Court of Appeal concluded that the City’s requested instruction was an accurate statement of California law and that the refusal to allow the instruction to be given was prejudicial error.  The Court of Appeal, however, did find that there was substantial evidence to support the jury’s finding that Harris was fired due to pregnancy discrimination and remanded for a new trial. In the interim, the California Supreme Court granted Harris’ petition for review to decide which jury instruction was appropriate.

The California Supreme Court raised the bar somewhat for plaintiffs, finding they must demonstrate that discrimination was a “substantial factor” in an employer’s decision to terminate them instead of just a motivating factor.

The Supreme Court’s ruling also altered the type of damages available to injured plaintiffs.  Previously, plaintiffs could seek emotional distress and economic damages if they proved discrimination was a motivating factor in their termination.  Now plaintiffs are only entitled to declaratory and injunctive relief if the employer can prove a legitimate motive would have led to the termination.  Plaintiffs are still entitled to attorneys’ fees, but the reduction in monetary damages might act as a disincentive to employees who seek to bring claims for discrimination.

It wasn’t all bad news for plaintiffs though. The court rejected calls by employer groups to adopt a “but for” standard in discrimination cases.  These groups sought a rule which would require plaintiffs to prove that they would have been retained in their employment “but for” the discrimination. The court refused to go that far.