Key Decisions

March 2013 – A Fired Employee Was Not Entitled To Damages

(filed under: Key Decisions Archive | March 22, 2013)

A Fired Employee Was Not Entitled To Damages

Harris v. City of Santa Monica
(Cal. Sup. Ct.), filed February 7, 2013

Wynona Harris was a bus driver who worked for the City of Santa Monica.  After the City fired her, Harris sued the City alleging that she was fired because of her pregnancy in violation of the prohibition on sex discrimination in the Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”).  The City claimed that Harris had been fired for poor job performance.

At trial, the City asked the court to instruct the jury that if it found a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives, the City could avoid liability by proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led it to make the same decision to fire Harris.  The trial court refused the instruction, and the jury returned a substantial verdict for Harris.

The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the requested instruction was legally correct and that the trial court’s refusal to give it was a prejudicial error.

The California Supreme Court held that the Court of Appeal was correct in part.  It held that under the FEHA, when a jury finds that unlawful discrimination was a substantial factor motivating a termination of employment, and when the employer proves it would have made the same decision absent such discrimination, a court may not award damages, backpay, or an order of reinstatement.  However, it also held that the employer does not escape liability entirely and could be subject to an injunction compelling it to stop discriminatory practices.

The Court reasoned that in light of the FEHA’s express purpose of not only redressing but also preventing and deterring unlawful discrimination in the workplace, an employee could still be awarded, where appropriate, declaratory relief or injunctive relief to stop discriminatory practices.  In addition, the employee may be eligible for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.

Based on this reasoning, the Court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s judgment overturning the damages verdict and remanded for further proceedings.