HR Management & Compliance

What Are the Rules for Mixed-Motive Bias in California?

In early 2013, the California Court of Appeals ruled in favor of an employee in a so-called “mixed-motive” case (when an employer has both unlawful and legitimate reasons for taking an adverse employment action) brought under the state Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

Because of the state Supreme Court’s decision in another mixed-motive case, though, the appellate court recently switched gears and reversed its judgment for the employee. Read on to find out why the court changed its position—and the limits of that change.

Clerk claims pregnancy discrimination

In July 2006, Lorena Alamo started working for Los Angeles-based Practice Management Information Corporation (PMIC), a publisher of medical coding and compliance books.

She began as a clerk in the collections department and was later promoted to lead collections clerk. Alamo received regular pay raises during her employment, and by January 2009, her base rate was $18 per hour.

On January 15, 2009, Alamo began a pregnancy-related leave of absence; her child was born about 2 weeks later. PMIC hired Marcell Moran on a part-time temporary basis to fill Alamo’s position while she was on leave. Moran was paid $14 per hour. In mid-February, Alamo asked for and was granted 6 more weeks of maternity leave.

Before Alamo’s leave, her supervisor had some concerns about her performance. The supervisor, however, never felt it necessary to issue Alamo any written warnings about her performance before the leave.

During the leave, the supervisor became aware of additional performance problems concerning neglected customer accounts that caused her more concern. The supervisor planned to discuss them with Alamo when she returned to work in April. With that plan in mind, the supervisor advised Alamo not to return to work until April 22, when the supervisor would be back in the office from vacation.

Pregnancy bias isn’t the only thing you need to worry about, especially since the EEOC is cracking down on national origin discrimination. Learn more at our webinar next week.

About 1 week before her return date, Alamo obtained permission from PMIC’s executive vice president to come into the office to have lunch with a coworker. The visit went poorly. Alamo got into an argument with Moran, who ended up telling Alamo that she was going to be fired.

When Alamo contacted the executive vice president and her supervisor later that day to inquire about Moran’s statement, the supervisor responded that they would discuss the matter when she returned to work.

After working for about 3 hours on the day of her return, Alamo was called into a meeting with the supervisor and executive vice president and terminated.

Alamo sued PMIC for pregnancy discrimination, and the jury awarded her $10,000 in damages. The trial court also awarded her about $51,000 for her attorneys’ fees and costs. (FEHA allows a prevailing party to recover such fees and costs from the other party.) PMIC appealed.

The Court of Appeals’ first ruling

PMIC contended that the jury instructions incorrectly indicated that Alamo had to prove that discrimination based on her pregnancy-related leave was merely "a motivating reason" for her termination.

PMIC claimed that Alamo should have been required to prove discrimination was the "but for" cause of the discharge—or that the employer had no other legitimate reason, such as performance problems, for firing her.

The Court of Appeals, however, concluded that the jury instructions properly required Alamo to establish that her protected status was simply a cause of the adverse employment decision and affirmed the jury verdict. (Alamo v. Practice Management Information Corp., Calif. Court of Appeals (Dist. 2) No. B230909, 2013)

Tomorrow, we’ll look at the California Supreme Court’s more recent ruling—which turned the tables against Alamo.

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1 thought on “What Are the Rules for Mixed-Motive Bias in California?”

  1. I’m curious what the evidence was that there was pregnancy discrimination–is it simply inferred because she had been pregnant?

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