A case involving a pregnant Santa Monica bus driver who alleged wrongful termination has placed mixed-motive employment cases in the spotlight when the state Supreme Court ruled that terminations founded on both discrimination and for cause can result in attorneys’ fees and court ordered relief, but not damages, back pay or reinstatement of the terminated employee, reports Los Angeles employment lawyer Eric Grover.
In Harris v. Santa Monica, Wynona Harris, a probationary driver for Santa Monica’s Big Blue Bus transit system, was fired days after revealing her pregnancy to her supervisor and alleged that was the reason for her termination.
Harris, who was hired in October 2004, was involved in two non-injury accidents that damaged the bus and a parked car in one of the crashes. Then, in the spring of 2005, Harris had two “miss-outs” because she did not notify her supervisor that she would be missing her shift. A few months later, Harris revealed to her boss that she was pregnant, which resulted in her boss expressing “seeming displeasure” and she was subsequently required to bring a doctor’s note to allow her to work. Four days later, Harris found herself on a list of probationary drivers who were deemed to be sub par, and just two days later, Harris was terminated.
Harris then filed a pregnancy discrimination lawsuit against her employer. During the initial trial proceedings, a Los Angeles County jury ruled that Harris’ pregnancy was “a motivating factor” in her termination from her position and awarded her $177,905 in damages and the court awarded over $400,000 in attorneys’ fees.
An appellate panel reversed the judgment because 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,” court documents revealed.
In the original case employers argued that they should only be held liable in circumstances where the employee terminated could prove that the termination was based solely on the basis of discrimination. The California Supreme Court took a different view and ruled that if discrimination was a “substantial” factor in the termination of the employee, that an employer could still be held liable even if the employee would have been fired for cause.
"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."
"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 further stated.
This decision may ultimately raise more questions than it answers and the middle ground seems to have left both sides less than satisfied. Employers are often concerned about the legal costs of defending their actions, however the lack of clarity in defining what a “substantial factor” really is causes great concern to employees. “As far as the employers are concerned, any incentive to treat their employees properly is a useful tool,” says Los Angeles employment attorney Eric Grover. “Employees who feel that they have been discriminated against should probably seek the counsel of an experienced employment law firm to help them determine whether they have a valid complaint and should proceed,” adds Grover.