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Former Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Honored for Role in Shaping State Discrimination Law

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By Jason Islas
Lookout reporter

March 14, 2014 -- For her role in “one of the most significant California Supreme Court opinion in years,” former Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Barbara Greenstein was named California Lawyer of the Year Tuesday.

Greenstein, along with her team, successfully defended the City of Santa Monica against charges of discrimination by Wynona Harris, a former Big Blue Bus employee who lost her job in 2005 after she told her supervisor she was pregnant.

“It was not only a significant victory for the City, but it changed the course of California discrimination law,” said Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawerence told the Lookout Thursday.

Lawerence, who was also acknowledged for his work on the case, said that the decision clarified important points about California’s discrimination law.

Due to the efforts of Greenstein, who recently retired, and her team, the California Supreme Court ruled in February 2013 that Santa Monica did not have to pay $177,905 in damages to Harris.

The California Supreme Court overturned the 2005 decision to award Harris damages by a Superior Court jury because it was not told that the City’s “mixed-motive” defensive was admissible in California court.

“Both the Court of Appeal and the Supreme Court agreed with the City that the jury instructions were wrong and that they failed to properly describe the requirements of California employment discrimination law,” staff said.

Harris, who was a probationary City bus driver, disclosed the fact that she was pregnant “while her supervisors were making their final decisions about whether she should be retained past probation,” staff said.

The City pointed to Harris’ history of showing up late to work and the fact that she had been involved in two accidents while a probationary driver, arguing that it was poor work performance that led to her being fired.

The State Supreme Court in February said it was a valid argument and must be considered by the jury, sending the case back to the Superior Court.

Lawerence, who was also acknowledged for his work on the case, said the impact of the California Supreme Court’s opinion was twofold.

The Court also ruled that in order for an act to be considered discrimination, it “must be the substantial reason why someone was fired or disciplined,” according to City officials.

“This is representative of the quality of work that is done by the City Attorney's office,” Mayor Pam O’Connor told The Lookout Thursday.

Greenstein was among 57 lawyers who received the award, meted out annually by California Lawyer magazine.

The award honors lawyers in a wide variety of fields who have been involved in precedent-setting cases.

Also acknowledged for their work on the case were Chief Deputy City Attorney Jeanette Schachtner, Deputy City Attorneys Carol Rohr, Anthony Serritella, Meishya Yang.

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