• State Supreme Court Limits Monetary Damages Under FEHA in Mixed Motive Discrimination Cases
  • February 13, 2013 | Authors: Alison D. Alpert; Stacey N. Sheston
  • Law Firms: Best Best & Krieger LLP - San Diego Office ; Best Best & Krieger LLP - Sacramento Office
  • Today’s ruling by the California Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica resolved an ambiguity in the jury instructions applicable to “mixed motive” discrimination cases under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). An employee claiming discrimination under FEHA is not entitled to monetary damages when the employer proves that legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons would have resulted in the same adverse employment action being taken. The news is not all good for employers, however. Even where legitimate business reasons for the adverse action exist, if a FEHA plaintiff shows discrimination was a “substantial motivating factor,” the court may still order remedies such as declaratory relief, an injunction prohibiting future discrimination, and - most significantly - an award of plaintiff’s costs and attorneys’ fees.

    Harris was a city bus driver who had two minor accidents during her probationary period, as well as two instances of reporting late for work without notifying her supervisor or dispatch. A transit manager investigated her performance after the second tardiness incident and concluded Harris was not meeting standards for continued employment. At approximately the same time as the investigation, her immediate supervisor discovered Harris was pregnant. The supervisor was notified by management that Harris was not meeting required standards and Harris was released from her probationary employment two days later. At trial, the city argued Harris would have been fired for legitimate performance reasons irrespective of her pregnancy. However, the jury determined pregnancy was “a motivating factor” in the discharge, and Harris was awarded $177,905 in damages and over $400,000 in attorneys’ fees and costs.

    On appeal, the California Supreme Court ruled that in such “mixed motive” cases, employers are entitled to a jury instruction providing a partial defense where they can prove it was more likely than not they would have taken the same adverse employment action for legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons (such as performance problems).

    Any discrimination claim can be both expensive and disruptive for your agency or business, and preventing claims is always the best defense.