The California Supreme Court just came down with a big decision regarding employment discrimination. Employment lawyers across the state are describing Harris v. City of Santa Monica as a compromise between employee rights and business’ freedom to terminate employees. I find the decision fair, despite the fact that I was rooting for Ms. Harris.
Fair Employment and Housing Act – Pregnancy Discrimination
The facts of the case are relatively straight forward: a bus driver alleged that she was fired by the City of Santa Monica because of her pregnancy in violation of the FEHA. The City claimed that she was fired for poor job performance. At trial, the City argued that if the jury found a mix of discriminatory and legitimate motives in Harris’ termination, the City could avoid liability by proving that a legitimate motive alone would have led it to make the same decision to fire her. The trial court denied the City’s argument, and the jury awarded her $177,905 in damages and more than $400,000 in attorney fees. The Court of Appeal reversed, and the Supreme Court granted cert.
Supreme Court Decision – Employment Lawyers Say “Compromise”
“We hold 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. But the employer does not escape liability. In light of the FEHA‘s express purpose of not only redressing but also preventing and deterring unlawful discrimination in the workplace, the plaintiff in this circumstance could still be awarded, where appropriate, declaratory relief or injunctive relief to stop discriminatory practices. In addition, the plaintiff may be eligible for reasonable attorney‘s fees and costs. Therefore, we affirm the Court of Appeal‘s judgment overturning the damages verdict in this case and remand for further proceedings in accordance with the instructions set forth below.”
As most readers can tell, the court was trying to make employers and employees happy. This decision permits employees to still bring lawsuits when the employer has a mixed motive, however limits the damages attainable.
Some plaintiff attorneys question whether the court adequately defined when discrimination becomes a “substantial factor” in workplace discipline. The high court’s opinion concluded that “mere discriminatory thoughts or stray opinions are not sufficient to establish liability” under state law. The justices refused to offer a more specific definition “given the wide range of scenarios in which mixed-motive cases might arise.”
All in all, this is just another day in the life of an employment attorney.
Branigan Robertson is a California employment lawyer who exclusively represents employees in workplace disputes. He focuses his practice on sexual harassment, wage & hour, wrongful termination, and retaliation. Visit his website at BRobertsonLaw.com or call his office at 949.667.3025.
Ongoing Sexual Harassment Tolls the Statute of Limitations
To sue for sexual harassment in California, you must bring your claim to the Department of Fair Employment & Housing or get your “right to sue” letter within one year of the alleged harassment. Your lawyer will obtain this for you. But what if the harassment regularly took place over the last couple years? What if some of the sexual harassment took place over the last 10 or 15 years? Are the instances of harassment that took place over a year ago barred from being brought in court ? Will your attorney have bad news for you? The answer is “no”…well…most of the time it’s “no.”
In 2001, the Supreme Court of California ruled on the scope of the “continuing violation doctrine” in Richards v. CH2M Hill, Inc.. The doctrine “allows liability for unlawful employer conduct occurring outside the statute of limitation if it is sufficiently connected to unlawful conduct within the limitations period.” To determine this connection, the Supreme Court set up a three part test: if (1) the actions are sufficiently similar in kind; (2) they occur with sufficient frequency; and (3) they have not acquired a degree of permanence so that employees are on notice that further efforts at informal conciliation with the employer to obtain accommodation or end harassment would be futile.
If this test is met, the statute of limitations begins to run either when the course of sexual harassment has ended (such as when the employer fires the harasser) or when the employee is on notice that further efforts to end the unlawful conduct will be in vain.
Statistics show that most women fail to confront their bosses about sexual harassment. This is a mistake.
When a woman wears tight or provocative clothing at work, and is thereafter sexually harassed by a male manager or coworker, will that fact hurt her sex harassment case? This is an especially important question in Orange County, where California culture encourages working women to wear shirts that show a little cleavage and skirts that show off some leg.
Some men believe that when a woman wears tight clothing, revealing blouses, or a short skirts, she is seeking sexual attention. Many believe that she “asked for it” and that they should not be punished because she “led him on.”
California’s hostile work environment laws state that the harassment must be “severe” or “pervasive” and is evaluated on a “totality of the circumstances” scale. These legal constructs allows judges, juries, mediators, and arbitrators to evaluate just about anything they want in deciding whether sexual harassment has occurred.
As a result, society, judges, juries, and arbitrators, often blame the victim for encouraging the harassment. These decision makers have, on numerous occasions, decided against employees on the basis of conduct they see as encouraging the harasser such as, using sexual language & mannerisms around the person who allegedly harassed them, wearing tight & revealing clothing, failing to make complaints after harassment allegedly occurred, and initiating social contact with the harasser after the harassment has occurred.
Discrimination is subtle. It’s never goes like: “We’re terminating your position because you can’t walk/have diabetes/have cancer/can’t hear….” No, no, no. Even stupid bosses usually aren’t that stupid.
It usually goes like this: “We’re letting you go.” That’s it. Smart employers don’t give you a reason, they just fire. But it gets interesting when someone gets fired two months after being diagnosed with cancer, or after breaking major bones on their hand, after telling their boss that they’re depressed, get a serious back injury, or after major surgery.
The law in California prohibits disability discrimination. But what happens when you are fired, demoted, or refused a promotion for reasons seemingly unrelated to your disability? Do you just suck it up and try to find a new job? Well, yes, you should try to find a new job; but no, you shouldn’t put your tail between your legs and let your boss do that, especially if you suspect you were fired because of your disability.