California Employment Law – Mixed-Motive Termination

13820757_sAs of February 2013, California’s Fair Employment & Housing Act has been adjusted in regards to how courts’ will view, award, and give jury instructions in cases involving unlawful termination –potentially in favor of employees.

To be more specific, there is a defense for employers called ‘mixed motive defense.’ Mixed motive defense involves cases where an employer potentially has both legal and illegal motives for firing an employee. For example, let’s say that your store manager fired an employee for poor performance, but there’s also some evidence suggesting that your store manager had discriminatory reasons for the firing relating to the employee’s gender. As a result, the former employee sues for wrongful termination. Your best defense might be ‘mixed motive’ arguing that your manager still would have fired the employee for her poor performance, even without the gender issue.

Previously, if you could prove that your manager would have made the same decision even without the discriminatory factor, then you would escape all liability. This is known as a ‘same decision’ ruling.

However, in the case of a Santa Monica bus driver who filed suit last year after being terminated during her pregnancy, the California Supreme Court made a unanimous decision that a ‘same decision’ ruling does not completely eliminate an employer from liability.

In the Courts’ ruling, they determined that employers would still be excused from any damages, back-pay or an order of reinstatement. However, you may still be nailed with declaratory or injunctive relief. The plaintiff may also be awarded attorney’s fees and costs. The purpose – according to the California Supreme Court – is to potentially prevent and deter unlawful employment in the future.

What does this mean to you, as an employer?

It means that the burden is on you to prove that your termination reasons were not ‘mixed’ at all if you want to avoid liability altogether.

See, it is not uncommon for a disgruntled ex-employee to exaggerate small remarks made on the job or use weak incidental evidence to prove that they were wrongfully terminated for unlawful reasons. While employees can no longer be awarded massive settlements or damages in these incidents, they can still be given relief by the courts.

The case of Harris v City of Santa Monica, February 7, 2013, 96 EPD ¶44749 is essentially telling us that employers must be very cautious and aware of employment laws when making the decision to terminate an employee. If there is any indication that discriminatory motives were at all involved in the firing, then same decision rulings will no longer preclude you from any and all liability. You must be able to prove without a doubt that all motives were legal.

If you’re experienced problems with a disgruntled ex-employee – or are concerned about a potential unlawful termination suit – you need professional help. Employment law is a tangled web of federal and state laws, and regulated by dozens of different agencies. Contact the Law Offices of Tony T. Liu to discuss the details of your case and determine the best litigation strategy possible.