Key Decisions

October 2013 – The Test In FEHA Cases Is “Substantial Motivating Reason”

(filed under: Key Decisions | October 20, 2013)

The Test In FEHA Cases Is “Substantial Motivating Reason”

Alamo v. Practice Management Information Corporation
(Cal. Ct. of App., 2d Dist.), filed August 21, 2013, published September 5, 2013

KEY FACTS

Lorena Alamo worked for Practice Management Information Corporation (“PMIC”). Alamo had some job performance issues and some issues regarding her interactions with other employees. However, these were not so serious as to warrant formal discipline.

Alamo took a pregnancy leave. PMIC hired Marcell Moran to fill in for her. While Alamo was gone, PMIC discovered more serious job performance issues regarding Alamo. Alamo’s supervisor intended to discuss these recently-discovered performance issues with Alamo once Alamo returned from her leave. To that end, the supervisor advised Alamo to delay her return to work until the supervisor returned from vacation.

Although she had been told not to return to work until April 22, Alamo, with permission of another supervisor, visited the premises to have lunch with another co-worker. While there, Alamo had a verbal altercation with Moran.

Alamo returned to work. About three hours after Alamo returned and started working, she was terminated.

Alamo sued PMIC for pregnancy discrimination, retaliation in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act, as embodied in Government Code Section 12900 et seq. (FEHA), and wrongful termination in violation of public policy.

At trial, Alamo denied any performance problems or that she had been counseled regarding interactions with other employees.

“The jury returned a general verdict in favor of Alamo, awarding her $10,000 in damages. With respect to Alamo’s request for punitive damages, however, the jury found that she failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence that PMIC acted with malice, oppression, or fraud. Following the verdict, the trial court granted Alamo’s motion for attorney’s fees and costs as the prevailing plaintiff under the FEHA and awarded her counsel attorney’s fees in the amount of $50,858.44.”

PMIC appealed, but the Court of Appeal affirmed. PMIC sought review by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court directed the Court of Appeal to reconsider the matter in light of its decision in the case of Harris v. City of Santa Monica, 56 Cal.4th 203 (2013).

HOLDING & REASONING

The Court of Appeal reversed. It found that the trial court prejudicially erred in instructing the jury. The instructions the trial court used based liability for a FEHA violation on whether Alamo’s pregnancy was “a motivating reason” for her termination rather than on whether it was “a substantial motivating reason.”

The court rejected Alamo’s contention that a jury in an employment discrimination case would not draw any meaningful distinction between “a motivating reason” and “a substantial motivating reason” in deciding whether there was unlawful discrimination. The court observed that the Supreme Court reached a contrary conclusion in the Harris case. There, the Supreme Court specifically concluded that “[r]equiring the plaintiff to show that discrimination was a substantial motivating factor, rather than simply a motivating factor, more effectively ensures that liability will not be imposed based on evidence of mere thoughts or passing statements unrelated to the disputed employment decision.”

ANALYSIS

Even if some juries are unlikely to distinguish a “motivating reason” from a “substantial motivating reason,” cases like this one and Harris show how carefully jury instructions need to be drafted in pregnancy discrimination cases.