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California Supreme Court Overturns Santa Monica Big Blue Bus Discrimination Decision

Santa Monica Real Estate Company, Roque and Mark
By Jason Islas
Staff Writer

February 8, 2013 -- Santa Monica won't have to pay $177,905 in damages to Wynona Harris, a former Big Blue Bus employee who alleged that she was fired because she was pregnant, the California Supreme Court ruled Thursday.

The decision, written by Justice Goodwin Liu, found that the case would have to go back to Superior Court because the 2005 jury's decision was made without the instructions that a “mixed-motive” defense was admissible in California Courts.

A “mixed-motive” defense means that if the City could prove Harris would have been let go anyway because of poor performance, the City would not be liable, even if the woman’s pregnancy had been a factor in the firing.

“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,” Liu wrote.

“Both our office and the City considers the Court's ruling to be a victory and a success for the City,” said Assistant City Attorney Joseph Lawrence. “The Court's opinion upheld most of what the City thinks should be the law in the State.”

The City argued that Harris was fired in 2005 because she had been involved in two preventable accidents shortly after being hired as a probationary driver and that she had been late for work twice.

Harris' lawyers counter that she was fired because she told her supervisor that she was pregnant.

Should the case go before another jury that finds that discrimination was a substantial -- but not the only --motivating factor, the City may not have to pay damages.

“But the employer does not escape liability,” according to the decision. If it is determined that discrimination was a “substantial” factor, “the plaintiff … could still be awarded, where appropriate, declaratory relief or injunctive relief to stop discriminatory practices.”

And the defendant could possibly be ordered to pay the plaintiff's “reasonable” legal fees, the judge ruled.

Norman Pine, an appellant law specialist who was part of the team representing Harris, said, “Overall, we are very pleased because for years the defense bar has been seeking to have California adopt a 'but-for' causation test, as well as a complete liability ban in cases of mixed-motive.”

“Defeating that effort was our highest priority,” he said.

“Obviously, however, there are some parts of the decision that we are disappointed with,” he added.

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