Harris v. City of Santa Monica

The case sets forth that mixed motive discrimination cases must be evaluated where the jury must first be instructed that if an employer’s action was substantially motivated by discrimination before the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate a same day decision or legitimate reason for such conduct.

Described as one of the important and significant cases in 2013, this case essentially involved an employee’s claim that she was fired as city bus driver as a result of her pregnancy and that such violated the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”). Defendant in rebuttal argued that there were legitimate business reasons for his termination including among others, poor job performance, preventable accidents during her training and probationary period, and various absences from work.

As such, at trial, Defendant sought a jury instruction that set forth that if the jury found a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives, the employer may not be held liable if the legitimate reason, standing alone, would have induced it to make the same decision. The trial court refused to make such jury decision and instead, instructed the jury that plaintiff maintained the burden of showing that her pregnancy was the motivating factor or reason for her discharge.

The Court of Appeals

The California Court of Appeals reversed the trial court, holding that the jury instruction sought by the Defendant employer was proper where the jury should have been allowed leave to find a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives, wherein, the employer may not be held liable if the legitimate reason, standing alone, would have induced it to make the same decision.

The California Supreme Court in reviewing the mixed motive jury instruction reversed, concluding that mixed motive discrimination cases must be evaluated where the jury must first be instructed that if an employer’s action was substantially motivated by discrimination before the burden shifts to the employer to demonstrate a same day decision or legitimate reason for such conduct. In doing so, the California Supreme Court reasoned that pursuant to California’s Civil Rights Restoration Act the legislative purpose of FEHA, immunizing an employer by using such mixed motive or same day decision based jury instruction would essentially thwart the entire goals, purpose, and intent of FEHA. Additionally, the Court held that if an employer is able to adequately demonstrate a mixed motive or same day decision, then a prospective employee plaintiff is limited to declaratory and injunctive relief, fees and costs, and does not include reinstatement, back-pay or noneconomic damages.

Employment based claims involving a large employer requires a law firm that is experienced, competent, and knowledgeable concerning the complexities of employment discrimination claims. If you have any employment-related dispute and are considering suing your employer for wrongful discriminatory conduct contact the Orange County Employment Lawyers at Nassiri Law Group, practicing in Orange County, Riverside, and Los Angeles. Call 714-937-2020.