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February 26, 2013 | Law Alert

Harris v. City of Santa Monica 2013 WL 452959

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The California Supreme Court outlines a new “mixed-motive” defense for employers facing FEHA discrimination claims and also requires employees to first prove that the employer’s adverse-employment action was substantially motivated by the employee’s protected status

In the much anticipated Harris v. City of Santa Monica case, the California Supreme Court set forth the standard for determining liability in “mixed-motive” or “same-decision” cases.   In doing so, the Supreme Court also increased the burden of proof a plaintiff must meet in an employment-discrimination case.

In Harris, the plaintiff – Wynona Harris – was terminated from her job as a city bus driver.  Harris claimed she was wrongfully terminated because she was pregnant.  To support her claim at trial, Harris testified her supervisor seemed displeased by news she was pregnant and she was terminated just six days after revealing her pregnancy.  The City denied Harris was terminated because she was pregnant.  The City offered evidence Harris was terminated shortly after her probationary period due to poor performance.  Among other things, Harris had been involved in two “preventable” accidents and had twice failed to timely report to work.

Given its defense, the City asked the Court to instruct the jury that, if it found Harris’s termination was motived by the pregnancy, the City would not be liable if it established that its stated legitimate reason for the termination, standing alone, would have induced it to take the same action.  The Court refused to give the instruction, which the Court of Appeal found was error.  The California Supreme Court affirmed, in part, thereby changing the landscape of employment-discrimination cases involve evidence of “mixed-motives” for the adverse employment action.

Under the Harris analysis, an employee in a mixed-motive case now bears the initial burden of establishing that the employer’s adverse employment action was “substantially motived by discrimination.”  Up until Harris, an employee suing for unlawful discrimination only had to show the employee’s protected status was “a motivating reason” for the employer’s decision.  This is an important shift in the burden of proof – although it remains to be seen how this new standard will be applied.  Moreover, even if the employee can meet this threshold burden, the employer may now limit its liability for back pay, front pay, reinstatement, and emotional distress damages.  To do so, the employer must establish that it would have made the same employment decision, at the same time, even in the absence of any discriminatory motive.

While the Harris decision offers employers in mixed-motive cases an important defense, it is not a complete defense.  An employee who meets the burden of proof in discrimination cases may still be entitled to declaratory or injunctive relief as well as reasonable attorneys’ fees.  The key now in defending mixed-motive cases will be evaluating plaintiff’s evidence to test whether it meets the new burden of proof, and marshaling evidence of the legitimate reason for the termination.  If you have questions about the Harris case and its potential impact, please contact our team of employment lawyers.

Practice Area: Employment
Attorney: Douglas J. Melton, Shane M. Cahill

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