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Justices Reach Middle Ground in Pregnancy Bias SuitPlaintiffs and defense-side lawyers found something to criticize in a ruling penned by Justice Goodwin Liu that allows for recovery of attorney fees and injunctive relief, but not damages or back pay in mixed-motive discrimination suits.
2013-02-07 05:49:17 PM
The state Supreme Court on Thursday split the proverbial baby in a highly watched mixed-motive employment case, ruling that a termination based on both discriminatory and legitimate reasons can trigger attorney fees and declaratory or injunctive relief but not damages, back pay or reinstatement.
In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, employers had argued that they shouldn't be held liable unless workers could show that they wouldn't have been fired "but for" discrimination. But in a 6-0 ruling, the high court said that if discrimination was a "substantial" factor in a worker's termination, an employer shouldn't escape all liability, even if the firing was tied to legitimate shortcomings.
"We believe that allowing a same-decision showing to immunize the employer ... would tend to defeat the purposes of" California's Fair Employment and Housing Act, Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the court. "Such discrimination, even if not a 'but for' cause of the disputed employment action, would breed discord and resentment in the workplace if allowed to be committed with impunity."
At the same time, the court rejected employee groups' pleas to award damages, reinstatement and back pay in such cases.
"Although such remedies might help to 'prevent and deter unlawful employment practices'... they would do so only at the cost of awarding plaintiffs an unjustified windfall and unduly limiting the freedom of employers to make legitimate employment decisions," Liu wrote.
"Curtailing employers' prerogatives in this way that is, forcing an employer to retain someone when it had sufficient and legitimate reasons not to do so would cause inefficiency and would thus tend to 'deprive the state of the fullest utilization of its capacities for development and advancement,' contrary to the FEHA's purposes," the justice continued.
Justice Marvin Baxter recused himself from the case one month after oral arguments without giving a reason. His daughter, Laura Baxter-Simons, was sued in January for pregnancy discrimination.
Thursday's ruling comes in the case of Wynona Harris, a rookie driver for Santa Monica's Big Blue Bus transit system. In the months after she was hired in October 2004, Harris was involved in two noninjury accidents causing damage to the bus and, in one instance, a parked car. In the spring of 2005 she also incurred two "miss-outs" for failing to notify her supervisor that she was going to miss a shift start.
In May 2005, Harris told her boss she was pregnant. The supervisor, Harris said, reacted with "seeming displeasure" and asked for a doctor's note clearing her to work. Harris provided the note four days later and on the same day, managers included her on a list of probationary drivers who weren't meeting standards. Two days later she lost her job. Harris sued for pregnancy discrimination.
A Los Angeles County jury found that Harris' pregnancy was "a motivating factor" in her discharge and awarded her $177,905 in damages and more than $400,000 in attorney fees. An appellate panel reversed, ruling that the trial court should have instructed the jury that if it found a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives behind Harris' firing, the city of Santa Monica could escape liability by demonstrating that the legitimate reason alone would have led the driver's supervisors to terminate her.
Plaintiffs and defense attorneys both found elements to criticize in the high court's 46-page compromise opinion.
"A lot of employers getting hit with these types of claims are really pressured early on to settle because of the threat of attorneys fees," said Robin Largent, a partner with Carothers DiSante & Freudenberger in Sacramento. "This opinion really kind of furthers that pressure."
Therese Lawless, an employment discrimination attorney at San Francisco's Lawless & Lawless, questioned whether the court adequately defined when discrimination becomes a "substantial factor" in workplace discipline.
The high court's opinion concluded that "mere discriminatory thoughts or stray opinions are not sufficient to establish liability" under state law. But the justices refused to offer a more specific definition "given the wide range of scenarios in which mixed-motive cases might arise."
"I'm concerned that some judges could misinterpret what 'substantial factor' means," Lawless said. "The sad part about this case is there seems to be a complete misunderstanding about implicit bias in the workplace."