In February, the California Supreme Court issued an important decision applying the mixed-motive defense to employment discrimination cases brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). First, a brief bit of background: according to the mixed-motive defense, available in federal employment discrimination claims brought under Title VII, if an employer had both discriminatory and nondiscriminatory reasons for firing an employee, the employer should not be liable if the nondiscriminatory reason alone was sufficient to warrant termination of the employee.
In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, a bus driver was terminated for performance-related reasons shortly after she notified her supervisor that she was pregnant. She sued the City alleging the termination was an instance of pregnancy discrimination. At trial, the City asked the court to instruct the jury that, if the City proves it would have reached the same decision to terminate the driver even without a discriminatory motive, then it could not be held liable. The court refused this instruction and instead instructed the jury that if the bus driver proved her pregnancy was “a motivating factor/reason for the discharge” then the City was liable. The jury found the plaintiff’s pregnancy was a motivating factor and awarded her $177,905 in damages and $401,187 in attorney’s fees.
The City appealed and the Court of Appeal determined that the proposed mixed-motive instruction should have been given. It reversed and remanded. Harris sought, and the California Supreme Court granted, review of the Court of Appeal decision.
The Supreme Court held that the instruction should have required the plaintiff to establish, not just that discrimination was a motivating factor or reason, but that it was “a substantial motivating factor/reason” for the termination.* If the plaintiff makes this showing, the employer then has the opportunity to limit its exposure by proving by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision for nondiscriminatory reasons, such as job performance. If the jury finds in favor of the employer on this issue, the plaintiff may not recover compensatory damages, back pay or reinstatement, though she may still seek and recover injunctive and declaratory relief. Additionally, she may stll be entitled to recover her attorney’s fees in prosecuting the lawsuit under FEHA.
At first blush, Harris would seem to be a positive development for California employers–and it is. The problem is that employment discrimination suits tend to be attorney-fee driven, with the result that lawyers will file and aggressively pursue marginal liability cases with the hope of striking it big with an attorney fee award. Consider the trial result in Harris, in which the attorney fees sought were over twice the damages award. The practical impact is that the employer is punished (though an attorney fee award) even when it otherwise succeeds in its mixed-motive defense.