LAS-ELC Authors Amicus Brief on Employment Discrimination Case

LAS-ELC Authors Amicus Brief on Employment Discrimination Case
February 11, 2013
Gavel and scales

In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, a decision issued at 10:00 today, February 7th, 2013, the California Supreme Court found that employers remain liable for employment decisions corrupted by discrimination even where the employer also has a non-discriminatory reason.  The Court rejected the employer groups’ position that employees should be forced to prove that discrimination was a “but for” cause of the employment action to win under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

However, the Court adopted a mixed-motives defense modeled on Title VII that allows employers a defense to certain damages.  The Court retained specific remedies that have the purpose of deterring discrimination such as declaratory and injunctive relief.  The Court also allowed for a prevailing plaintiff to recover attorneys’ fees.  Thus, employers will still be liable for employment actions tainted by discrimination but will have a defense to damage awards for those actions.

Ms. Harris was terminated from her position as a bus driver for the City of Santa Monica within two weeks of informing her manager that she was pregnant.  She sued the City for pregnancy discrimination in violation of the FEHA.  The City alleged that it terminated Ms. Harris for performance problems.  The case was tried to a jury, who was instructed to find for Ms. Harris if it found that her pregnancy was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate her. 

The jury found the City liable for pregnancy discrimination and awarded Ms. Harris $177,905 in damages.  The City appealed.  The Court of Appeal acknowledged that there was substantial evidence to support the jury's finding that pregnancy was a motivating factor in the decision to terminate Harris, but nevertheless reversed the judgment and ordered a retrial. 

The Court of Appeal concluded that the jury should have been instructed on the "same-decision" defense as set forth in the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in Price Waterhouse v. Hopkins--despite its subsequent rejection by Congressional amendment--whereby an employer is immunized of all liability if it proves that it would have made the same decision even absent the discriminatory factor.  Today, the California Supreme Court rejected that ruling, instead opting for a more limited defense to certain remedies.

LAS-ELC senior staff attorney Sharon Terman and Special Counsel Joseph Grodin authored an amicus brief on behalf of over a dozen civil rights organizations urging the California Supreme Court to reverse the holding of the Court of Appeal because the same-decision defense is inconsistent with the plain meaning, policy, and historical interpretation of the Fair Employment and Housing Act, and the defense has proven confusing and unworkable in practice.

According to senior staff attorney Elizabeth Kristen, “Today’s decision by the California Supreme Court is a significant victory for employees.  The Court rejected the draconian standard urged by employers and instead chose a middle ground.”