New Case Law: Harris v. City of Santa Monica

Attorney Case Law Update: Harris v. City of Santa Monica – California Supreme Court. Branigan Robertson is a California employment lawyer who focuses his practice on pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, retaliation, and wrongful termination.

Case Facts – Employment Attorney

A bus driver alleged that she was fired by the City of Santa Monica because of her pregnancy in violation of the prohibition on sex discrimination in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). When Harris told her boss that she was pregnant, he seemed to react negatively and soon thereafter she was fired. The City claimed that she had been fired for poor job performance. Harris was in a few minor car accidents while on the job and had been late to work a few times.

Attorney Case Analysis

The City argued that the trial court should have instructed the jury with the following: “If you find that the employer‘s action . . . was actually motivated by both discriminatory and non-discriminatory reasons, the employer is not liable if it can establish by a preponderance of the evidence that its legitimate reason, standing alone, would have induced it to make the same decision.” Thus, the City did not object to the burden-shifting aspect of Price Waterhouse. Its primary contention is that the Court should follow Price Waterhouse not only with respect to burden shifting, but also with respect to the legal effect of an employer‘s same-decision showing.

The CA Supreme 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. But the employer does not escape liability. 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.

There are additional holdings of the case that are important. For example, the Court held that the plaintiff does not need to introduce direct evidence of discrimination in a ‘mixed motive’ case such as this. The plaintiff can get by with circumstantial evidence. The defendant must also plead the ‘mixed motive’ defense in its initial answer. It cannot claim mixed motive at trial if it hasn’t fought for it from the beginning. Finally, the defendant must prove it actually would have taken the same action at the same time even if it had not considered the prohibited trait. This is a big deal because the defendant is going to be hard pressed to show this in most discrimination cases.

This case causes problems for many plaintiffs, but it did not turn out as bad as plaintiff lawyers across California had feared. Basically the defendant will try even harder to come up with multiple non-discriminatory reasons why they fired plaintiff. The plaintiff attorneys will have to argue tooth and nail that such reasons would not have led to the firing at the time they made the decision without the discriminatory motive as well. When all the dust settles, I believe this case will work out well for victims of discrimination.

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