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Santa Monica Council Votes for Settlement in Decade-Long Sex Discrimination Suit

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark

Pacific Park, Santa Monica Pier

Harding Larmore Kutcher & Kozal, LLP  law firm
Harding, Larmore
Kutcher & Kozal, LLP

By Jonathan Friedman
Associate Editor

March 20, 2015 -- A 10-year legal battle about alleged gender discrimination between the City of Santa Monica and a former employee that went all the way to the California Supreme Court likely came to an end Tuesday when the City Council voted 6 to 0 to pay $490,000 in a settlement.

Some might consider this to be an unusual conclusion for a case that Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawerence last year called “a significant victory for the City.”

City Attorney Marsha Moutrie said prior to the Council vote that the settlement was an “amicable resolution” that would “avoid the expenses and uncertainty of further litigation in this very long-running case.”

The case involves Wynona Harris, a Big Blue Bus driver who was fired in May 2005. City officials said it was due to a poor evaluation based on two preventable accidents and for missing work twice without properly notifying her supervisor.

Harris and her lawyers said she was fired because she was pregnant. A Downtown Los Angeles jury agreed with them, and awarded her nearly $200,000 in October 2005.

Four years later, a three-judge Court of Appeal panel unanimously ruled that the verdict should be set aside and a new trial should take place in the Los Angeles Superior Court.

The appellate panel said Santa Monica attorneys should have been allowed to argue a so-called mixed-motive defense. This argument says that even if Harris' pregnancy had been a factor in the firing, she would have been let go anyway because of poor performance.

The appellate judges later agreed to reconsider their decision, and came back with a similar verdict in February 2010.

Harris appealed this decision to the California Supreme Court. Three years later, the high court affirmed the Court of Appeal’s ruling in a 6 to 0 decision.

Lawyers on both sides were preparing for the new trial when the settlement was reached.

This case has received lots of attention throughout California, especially from disability and employee rights groups as well as legal officials and observers.

The legal magazine California Lawyer named former Santa Monica Deputy City Attorney Barbara Greenstein as a Lawyer of the Year in 2014 for her role in the case.

Moutrie said on Tuesday when announcing the details of the settlement that the City does not tolerate gender discrimination. 

“I think if anyone has doubts about that, all you have to look at is who’s seated on the dais,” said Moutrie, referring to herself as well as Interim City Manager Elaine Polachek and City Clerk Sarah Grossman.  

Moutrie added, the council “has three appointees who are here doing your work, and all three of them are female.”

Harris’ attorney Michael Nourmand could not be reached for comment.

“It was not only a significant victory for the City, but it changed the course of California discrimination law,” Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence told the Lookout last March after Greenstein received the award.

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