Harris v. City of Santa Monica, No. S181004, 2013 Cal. LEXIS 941 (Feb. 7, 2013)

Wynona Harris, a bus driver for the City of Santa Monica (the City), alleged that she was fired because of her pregnancy in violation of the prohibition against sex discrimination under the Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).  The City denied Harris’s allegations and asserted as an affirmative defense that the City had legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons to fire Harris.  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 escape liability by proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led to the same decision.  The trial court refused the instruction and instead told the jury that Harris had to prove that her pregnancy was a “motivating factor/reason for the discharge.”  The jury found in favor of Harris and awarded her $177,905 in damages.  The Court of Appeal reversed, holding that the requested instruction was legally correct and that refusal to give the instruction was prejudicial error.

The California Supreme Court agreed in part with the Court of Appeal.  The Supreme Court 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 decision absent such discrimination, a court may not award damages, backpay, or an order of reinstatement.”  However, “the employer does not escape liability,” and the court still could award declaratory or injunctive relief and reasonable attorney’s fees to the plaintiff.

While Harris is very good news for employers because it (i) elevates the standard of proof that an employee must satisfy (i.e., that discrimination was a “substantial factor” motivating a termination) and (ii) may in some cases deprive the employee of any monetary damages if the employer can show it would have made the same decision for legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons, the new standard is by no means a “get-out-of-jail” free card for employers.

Less than a week after the Supreme Court handed down its opinion in Harris, an L.A. County jury (after being instructed on the new rule enunciated in Harris) awarded a former employee more than $5.2 million in compensatory damages and more than $16.5 million in punitive damages in a disability discrimination case.  In Rodriguez v. Valley Vista Services, Inc., BC 473793 (Cal. Super. Ct. Feb. 15, 2013), perhaps the very first case to apply the California Supreme Court’s decision in Harris, the jury weighed whether a customer service representative from a waste management company was fired because of a mental disability (which allegedly manifested itself in the form of “panic attacks”) or because she was AWOL when she failed to call into work for three successive days.  After receiving jury instructions specifically based on Harris, the jury awarded Rodriguez a record-setting $5,228,185.92 in compensatory damages and $16,570,261 in punitive damages.