LOS ANGELES — The California Supreme Court ruled Thursday that employees can’t win certain damages, back pay or reinstatement even if discrimination played a substantial role in their termination if the employer can prove it would have made the same decision regardless.
The court did not clear employers of all liability, however. Employees may still recoup attorney fees and be entitled to injunctive or declaratory relief assuming that they can prove that discrimination was a “substantial factor” motivating their release.
The decision came out of a 2005 case filed against City Hall by a former Big Blue Bus driver who accused her supervisors of firing her because she was pregnant.
In the 2005 suit, Wynona Harris claimed that she was fired after confiding in her supervisor that she was pregnant when the man confronted her about leaving the shirt of her uniform hanging loose.
The morning that Harris gave him a doctor’s note permitting her to do her job with some limited restrictions, BBB supervisors held a meeting and received a list of probationary drivers who were going to be fired.
Harris’ name was on the list, and her last day on the job was May 18, 2005.
According to the opinion, Harris already had two accidents on her record that the BBB leadership deemed “preventable.” She had also missed two shifts without giving notice that she would be out and received a poor performance rating in a review.
When the case went before a jury, the attorneys representing the city went for a “mixed-motives” defense, meaning that City Hall shouldn’t be held liable for discrimination if legitimate reasons to fire Harris would have been enough to let her go.
The court didn’t buy the argument, instead telling the jury that Harris had only to prove that her pregnancy was a “motivating factor/reason for discharge.”
Under those circumstances, the jury awarded Harris $177,905 in damages. She then sought $401,187 in attorneys fees.
A Court of Appeal found that the lower court had erred, and that the “mixed-motives” defense was allowable, but also found that there was substantial evidence supporting the jury verdict that Harris had been fired because of her pregnancy.
The California Supreme Court took up the issue of the mixed-motive instruction, ultimately ruling Thursday that employees like Harris would have to show that discrimination played more than a motivating factor in the decision to fire them if they intended to collect.
Santa Monica Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence said that the City Attorney’s Office was pleased with the outcome, and that the court had agreed with most points he and other attorneys put forward on behalf of the city.
“The court is crystal clear … ,” Lawrence said.
Lawrence doesn’t believe the facts of the case go in Harris’ favor under the higher standard.
If they did, it would still be difficult for her to win the over $400,000 in attorney fees, Lawrence said.
Harris’ attorney did not respond to a request to comment for this article.