California readers may be aware of a recent Supreme Court ruling in a case involving the City of Santa Monica. The outcome of the case could have a major impact on the ability of California workers to win workplace discrimination suits. The decision was handed down in early February and is already being implemented in employment litigation across the state.
At the heart of the case are claims made by a female Santa Monica employee that she was fired from her position as a bus driver due to the fact that she was pregnant. The release from employment took place in 2005, and the subsequent discrimination lawsuit led to a finding by a jury that the woman’s pregnancy was a ‘motivating factor’ in the decision to fire her. She was awarded nearly $178,000 in damages.
On appeal that verdict was overturned. The appellate court found that while there was substantial evidence that the woman was discriminated against based on her pregnancy. However, it was also found that the trial court judge erred in failing to inform the jury that the city could have avoiding being held liable if they were able to prove that there were also legitimate reasons for terminating the employee. The city claims that the driver was involved in two automotive accidents while on the job, and had come to work late on at least two occasions. The Supreme Court upheld the ruling of the appellate court, but also found that in such cases, a plaintiff can still recover lawyer fees and other costs, even if damages are not awarded.
The outcome of this case could make it more difficult for California workers to prevail in workplace discrimination suits. In cases in which the employer can make an argument that the worker might have been fired due to performance or other legitimate reasons, the existence of discriminatory practices might not be sufficient to win an award of damages. As this case suggests, discrimination suits can be difficult to litigate, and the best chance of success lies in a carefully prepared legal approach.
Source: San Francisco Chronicle, “Discrimination ruling could hurt workers’ lawsuits,” Kathleen Pender, Feb. 16, 2013