California Supreme Court Revises Jury Instructions And Trial Procedures In Discrimination Cases

by Proskauer - California Employment Law
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Harris v. Superior Court, 56 Cal. 4th 203 (2013)

Wynona Harris alleged her employment was terminated by the City of Santa Monica because of her pregnancy in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The city claimed Harris had been fired for poor job performance – she had two preventable traffic accidents and two late arrivals to work during her first six months on the job. Over the city’s objection, the jury was instructed according to California Civil Jury Instruction (“CACI”) 2500 that Harris only had to prove that her pregnancy was “a motivating factor/reason for the discharge.” The jury found by a vote of 9 to 3 that Harris’s pregnancy was “a motivating reason” for her discharge and awarded her damages in the amount of $177,905 (including $150,000 in emotional distress damages). The court of appeal reversed the judgment and remanded the case for a new trial on the ground that the judge should have given a “mixed motive” jury instruction as requested by the city. Harris sought review by the California Supreme Court, which affirmed the appellate court’s judgment overturning the verdict and ordered that new jury instructions be given on retrial.

The Supreme Court held that on remand the trial court should consider in the first instance whether discrimination was “a substantial motivating factor/reason” for the termination. If the employee succeeds in proving that discrimination was “a substantial motivating reason” for the adverse employment action, the burden shifts to the employer to prove that it would have made the same decision in any event for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons. If the employer succeeds in proving it would have made the same decision, then the employee may recover no damages from the employer and is limited to declaratory or injunctive relief (not including reinstatement) and an award of reasonable attorney’s fees under Cal. Gov’t Code § 12965(b).

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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