Wynona Harris was a bus driver for the City of Santa Monica. While still in her probationary period, Harris was involved in two accidents and accumulated two absences for which she did not follow proper procedures. Shortly after confiding her pregnancy to her supervisor, Harris was fired because she did not meet the City's standards.
Harris sued the City claiming that she was fired because she was pregnant. The City responded by asserting a legitimate non-discriminatory reason for terminating Harris. At trial, the City requested the court to instruct the jury that if the firing was motivated by both discriminatory and nondiscriminatory reasons, the employer should not be found liable if it can show that its legitimate reason, standing alone, would have caused it to make the same decision. The court rejected the instruction and the jury found for Harris. The court of appeals reversed and said that the requested jury instruction was an accurate statement of California Law.
California Supreme Court’s decision alters the landscape
The California Supreme Court held that in employment discrimination cases brought under California Fair Employment and Housing Act, if the jury determines that unlawful discrimination was a major factor in the adverse employment action, the employer could avoid damages by showing that it would have made the same decision without the discriminatory motive.
The new burden of proof in California employment discrimination cases
After Harris, the burden of proof analysis in a mixed-motive employment discrimination case proceeds as follows:
The employee bears the burden to show that the employer's adverse employment action was "substantially motivated by discrimination".
If the employee meets the initial burden, the employer may limit its liability for certain compensatory damages, reinstatement and emotional distress damages by proving that it would have made the same employment decision without the discriminatory motive.
Even if the employer meets its burden, the employee may still be awarded injunctive relief and reasonable attorney's fees.
When you suffer from illegal and discriminatory practices in the workplace, the employment lawyers at Mitchell | Gilleon strives to recover economic and other damages on your behalf.