California Court of Appeal Clarifies Rule in “Mixed Motive” Cases

In certain cases, an employer may have considered both proper and improper motives in terminating an employee. For example, an employer may have considered performance issues in deciding to dismiss a pregnant employee. These can be difficult cases because if the employee proves her pregnancy was a motivating factor, she can (and should) recover damages for illegal employment germination. But what if the same employee also had performance issues – and those issues also were a motivating factor in prompting the employer's decision? A recent case clarifies the legal rule to be applied in this context. In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, the California Supreme Court clarified how these cases should be treated.

"When a plaintiff has shown by a preponderance of the evidence that discrimination was a substantial factor motivating his or her termination," said the court, "the employer is entitled to demonstrate that legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons would have led it to make the same decision at the time.  If the employer proves by a preponderance of the evidence that it would have made the same decision for lawful reasons, then the plaintiff cannot be awarded damages, backpay, or an order of reinstatement.  However, where appropriate, the plaintiff may be entitled to declaratory or injunctive relief.  The plaintiff also may be eligible for an award of reasonable attorney’s fees and costs ..."

The court also noted that a jury in a mixed motive case alleging unlawful termination should be instructed that it must find the employer’s action was substantially motivated by discrimination before the burden shifts to the employer to make a same-decision showing -- I.e., that it would have made the same decision anyway, based on non-discriminatory reasons -- and that a same-decision showing precludes an award of reinstatement, backpay, or damages.

A copy of the ruling is attached.