We hold 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.
Long awaited? Yes, we published about the court of appeal's pro-employer decision in November 2009, here. And this case is very important to clarify the burdens of proof in discrimination cases. So, "long anticipated" too.
The Supreme Court did not go as far as the lower court. In Harris, the plaintiff was a bus driver for LA County. She had a series of accidents and unexcused absences, resulting in her termination. She claimed it was due to her pregnancy, in violation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act. She pointed to some negative comments by a supervisor as evidence.
After trial, a jury awarded Harris a bunch of money. LA County tried to get the court to instruct the jury that Harris could not prevail if the County proved it would have fired Harris regardless of her pregnancy. Harris prevailed upon the trial court to instruct only that discriminatory bias must be but one motivating reason for the discharge. So, she won.
The court of appeal reversed, holding that the County should have been provided the jury instruction.
The California Supreme Court reasoned that the FEHA prohibits acts that occur "because of" illegal discrimination. That phrase is construed a variety of ways. The Court sought to effectuate the legislature's intent to prohibit discriminatory practices. After reviewing cases and engaging in statutory interpretation, the Court came up with the principle above. An employer who proves it fired the plaintiff even though there was evidence of a discriminatory motive is entitled to prevail on the claim for damages. But the plaintiff will still win declaratory relief (like an injunction), attorneys' fees, and costs.
Here is some additional helpful language for employers:
We are mindful, however, that section 12940(a) does not purport to outlaw discriminatory thoughts, beliefs, or stray remarks that are unconnected to employment decisionmaking. Racist, sexist, or other biased comments in the workplace may give rise to a claim for unlawful harassment under a separate provision of the FEHA. (§ 12940, subd. (j); see Lyle v. Warner Bros. Television Productions (2006) 38 Cal.4th 264, 277–278.) But such comments alone do not support a claim under section 12940(a), nor do bigoted thoughts or beliefs by themselves. Were it otherwise, the causation requirement in section 12940(a) would be eviscerated. Section 12940(a) does not prohibit discrimination “in the air.” It prohibits discrimination that causes an employer “to refuse to hire or employ the person or to refuse to select the person for a training program leading to employment, or to bar or to discharge the person from employment or from a training program leading to employment, or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” (§ 12940(a).)
No emotional distress damages because:
When an employee is fired, and when discrimination has been shown to be a substantial factor but not a “but for” cause, we believe it is a fair supposition that the primary reason for the discharged employee’s emotional distress is the discharge itself. Such distress is not compensable under the FEHA — indeed, compensation for such distress would be a windfall to the employee — if the employer proves it would have fired the employee anyway for lawful reasons. But such comments alone do not support a claim under section 12940(a), nor do bigoted thoughts or beliefs by themselves. Were it otherwise, the causation requirement in section 12940(a) would be eviscerated. Section 12940(a) does not prohibit discrimination “in the air.” It prohibits discrimination that causes an employer “to refuse to hire or employ the person or to refuse to select the person for a training program leading to employment, or to bar or to discharge the person from employment or from a training program leading to employment, or to discriminate against the person in compensation or in terms, conditions, or privileges of employment.” (§ 12940(a).)
Although attorneys' fees may be available when the plaintiff wins a mixed-motive case, the plaintiffs' bar should not assume it will be the entire cost of litigating a case to conclusion:
An award of attorney’s fees is discretionary under section 12965, subdivision (b). An award may take into account the scale of the plaintiff’s success, and it must not encourage “unnecessary litigation of claims that serve no public purpose either because they have no broad public impact or because they are factually or legally weak.” (Weeks v. Baker & McKenzie (1998) 63 Cal.App.4th 1128, 1173.) Like Congress in enacting Title VII, our Legislature did not “ ‘ enact legislation whose benefit inures primarily to lawyers in the form of a substantial fee recovery, even if relief to the plaintiff is otherwise trivial and the lawsuit promotes few public goals.’ ” (Stevens v. Gravette Medical Center Hospital (W.D.Ark. 1998) 998 F.Supp. 1011, 1018.) The touchstone is “reasonable[ness].” (§ 12965, subd. (b).) In sum, we hold that a plaintiff subject to an adverse employment decision in which discrimination was a substantial motivating factor may be eligible for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs expended for the purpose of redressing, preventing, or deterring that discrimination.Strong mixed motive cases will be thwarted by well timed and realistic offers of compromise under Civil Procedure Code Section 998.
So, a mixed bag on mixed motive. But a welcome ruling in all for employers, in my opinion. There is a lot to like in this opinion, even though mixed motive is not a complete defense. The case is Harris v. City of Santa Monica and the opinion is here.