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Harris v. Santa Monica – California Supreme Court Rules on a FEHA Mixed Motive Instruction

On Behalf of | Feb 8, 2013 | in Employment Updates

California Supreme Court Rules No Damages for Plaintiff but Allows Fees and Costs on a FEHA Mixed Motive Instruction

A bus driver alleged that she was fired by the City of Santa Monica (the City)  because of her pregnancy in violation of the prohibition on sex  discrimination in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) found under Government Code section 12940.  The City claimed that she had been fired for poor job performance and actually demonstrated where she had broken some bus glass and sideswiped some parked cars.  At trial, the City asked the court to instruct the jury that if it found a mix of   discriminatory (pregnancy) and legitimate motives (bad bus driver), the City could avoid liability by  proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led it to make the same decision to fire her.  The trial court refused the instruction, and the jury returned a substantial verdict for the employee.  The Court of  Appeal reversed, holding that the requested instruction was legally correct   and that refusal to give it was prejudicial error.

The California Supreme Court granted review and  conclude that the Court of Appeal was correct in part.  The Court held that under the FEHA, when a jury finds that unlawful discrimination was a substantial factor motivating a termination of employment, and when the employer proves it would have made the same decision absent such discrimination, a court may not award damages, backpay, or an order of reinstatement.  [The City Cheered when reading the Opinion this far]  However, the Court held, “the employer does not escape liability.”  The Court held “In light of the FEHA’s express purpose of not only redressing but also preventing and deterring unlawful discrimination in the workplace, the plaintiff in this circumstance could still be awarded, where  appropriate, declaratory relief or injunctive relief to stop discriminatory practices.  In addition, the plaintiff may be eligible for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.”  [The City is now unhappy again] The Attorneys’ fees and costs could outpace the award given the appellate history of the case.  The end result was the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s judgment overturning the damages verdict in this case and remanded teh case back to the trial court for further proceedings in accordance with the instructions in the opinion.

The full opinion can be found at http://www.courts.ca.gov/opinions/documents/S181004A.PDF

If there are any questions about this case or an employers obligations to accomodate a pregnant employee, please contact Richard Quintilone II, Esq. at and for espanol Fernando Guzman [email protected] or Quintilone & Associates at 949-458-9675.


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