California employees face new difficulties proving discrimination

On February 7, 2013 the California Supreme Court issued its opinion in Harris vs. City of Santa Monica, a case dealing with employment discrimination. Many had been anxiously awaiting the decision because of the potential impact the case could have on employees who bring lawsuits alleging employment discrimination. Now that the court has spoken, many fear that employees face more difficulties successfully recovering for employment discrimination.

Sex discrimination allegations

The case stems from the firing of a Santa Monica bus driver in 2005. The plaintiff claimed that she was fired because she was pregnant, since her termination occurred six days after she informed her superiors of her condition. However, the city countered that it fired the plaintiff because she was late twice in the first five months of her employment and was also involved in two non-injury accidents.

The jury believed that the plaintiff's pregnancy was a "substantial factor" in her termination, and awarded her $ 177,905 in damages. The city appealed the decision, and an appellate court overturned the award. The appellate court noted that jury instructions failed to include the information that if there were both legitimate and discriminatory reasons for a termination, an employer may not be liable for damages if the employer can show that it would have terminated the employee for the legitimate reasons alone.

The California Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's ruling, agreeing that the jury instructions should have contained the information the appellate court stated. The court also noted that the appellate court should have included the fact that plaintiffs may still recover attorneys' fees if they can prove that the discrimination was a "substantial motivating factor" in the termination decision.

Changes to burden of proof

Many worry that it will be more difficult for employees to recover damages for employment discrimination after this case. Prior to this decision, an employee had the burden of showing that a discriminatory motive was a motivating factor in a hiring, promotion or firing decision in order to recover damages and attorneys' fees.

Now employees have to show that discrimination was a "substantial motivating factor" in the employment decision before they can recover damages and attorneys' fees. Furthermore, if an employer can show that it would have made the same decision for legitimate reasons - even if the plaintiff presents significant evidence of discrimination - that employer escapes paying damages. The employer may still be liable for attorneys' fees, however.

Experts are uncertain how the lower courts will interpret the term "substantial," and many fear that this may cause fewer successful recoveries for employment discrimination. Others note that employers may use the decision to as a negotiating tool to coerce employees to take low-ball settlement offers for fear of recovering nothing at trial.

Speak with an attorney

No one should have to deal with discrimination in the workplace, and employers who discriminate in violation of the law need to be held accountable. If you have suffered workplace discrimination, talk to an experienced employment law attorney who can help effectively build and present your case so it meets the court's standard for recovery.