“Mixed-motive” discrimination claims are among the most confusing kinds of employment cases. A mixed-motive bias claim occurs when an employee alleges that bias was one of the reasons that the employee was terminated or suffered some other kind of adverse employment action. In these cases, the employer asserts that there was a legitimate reason for the action it took, and the employee presents evidence that bias was also a reason.
A recent decision of the California Court of Appeals clarifies just when an employer can be held liable for discrimination in mixed-motive cases in this state.
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During her probationary period as a new bus driver for the City of Santa Monica, Wynona Harris accumulated 50 demerit points. Under city policy, any probationary employee with 50 demerit points was subject to review and possible termination.
While Harris’ status was being reviewed by her managers, Harris notified her supervisor that she was pregnant. Her supervisor asked her to get a doctor’s note clearing her to work. Four days later, Harris was terminated. Harris sued for pregnancy discrimination.
At the trial, the city asked the court to instruct the jury that if it found that there were two motives for Harris’ termination—poor performance and pregnancy bias — but also determined that the poor performance standing alone would have been a legitimate basis for termination, then the city was not liable. The court refused to issue that instruction, instead charging the jury that if it found that bias was a motivating factor in Harris’ determination, the city was liable.
The jury found that pregnancy was a factor in Harris’ termination and awarded her $177,905 in damages. The court also awarded her more than $400,000 in attorney’s fees and costs. The city appealed.
Disagreeing with the trial court, the Court of Appeals threw out the jury’s award and sent the case back for re-trial, ruling that the trial court should have given the jury the instructions that the city asked for.
We’ll have more about this case and about mixed-motive bias claims in an upcoming issue of California Employer Advisor.
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