Attorneys for employers are applauding the results of a February 7 decision by the California Supreme Court that ­held a former employee must prove that discrimination was a “substantial motivating factor” in an employee’s dismissal before he or she can recover on a discrimination claim.

Harris vs. City of Santa Monica

In the case in question, ­the city of Santa Monica fired Wynona Harris for what it claimed to be job performance reasons six days after she told them she was pregnant. The city claimed she had two previous accidents and was late for work twice in her first five months on the job, and so dismissed her. Harris disagreed and filed a discrimination lawsuit claiming the city violated the Fair Employment and Housing Act because it fired her for being pregnant.

During the trial, the city asked the judge to issue instructions to the jurors that if they felt there was mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives, the city would not be liable under the FEHA because legitimate reasons alone are enough to fire an employee, regardless if there was discrimination.

The judge refused to issue these instructions, and the jury awarded Harris $177,905 in damages. The city appealed, and ultimately both the state’s Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court overturned the decision because of the trial judge’s error to include these instructions to the jury.

Legitimate and discriminatory firing

An employee who is fired because of racist, sexist, or other biased comments in the workplace may sue for unlawful harassment or discriminatory firing under the FEHA. However, such discriminatory comments alone do not support a claim if there are legitimate reasons for the firing, and discriminatory thoughts or beliefs by themselves do not prove discrimination for firing or for harassment in the workplace.

The Supreme Court did somewhat modify the current law, however. The court found that if discrimination or bias was a “substantial” factor in the dismissal of an employee, then it could be subject to economic or noneconomic damages, backpay, or an order of reinstatement. The California Supreme Court did not go into detail regarding what “substantial motivating factors” means, so many cases of this nature will be subject to future decisions regarding how much discrimination is “enough” to violate the FEHA.

Currently, however, it appears that if an employer can prove it would have fired an employee even absent legitimate discrimination, the fired employee cannot recover damages, although he or she could recover attorney’s fees from the employer.

Discrimination claims

Claims of discriminatory firings can hurt both an employer’s image and pocketbook. Fortunately for employers, the Harris case seems to have put a raised burden of proof on the fired employee claiming discrimination. Employers facing a lawsuit regarding discrimination should immediately contact a skilled business law attorney to discuss their case.