Monday, February 11, 2013

Harris v. Santa Monica -- The Case That Keeps On Giving

Many of you who attend my employment law trainings will remember the case of Harris v. City of Santa Monica.  It has been in the court system for many years now. 

Ms. Harris was a bus driver who was involved in multiple accidents.  On the morning of the day the City decided to fire her, Ms. Harris announced she was pregnant.  She contended she was fired because she was pregnant.  The City claimed it was due to her less than stellar driving. 

The case raised the issue of "mixed motive."  The City claimed that if it would have fired Ms. Harris for a non-discriminatory reason, then the case should be dismissed.  Ms. Harris claimed that if the City had a discriminatory motive, it was liable for discrimination regardless of any other reason giving rise to the decision to terminate the employment relationship. 

The Supreme Court has now addressed the issue of mixed motive.  It concluded if an employer can prove that due to a non-discriminatory reason it would have made the decision to terminte, then the court cannot award damages, backpay or order reinstatement.  However, if the employer's motive was, in part, discriminatory, then the plaintiff can obtain declaratory or injunctive relief to stop the discriminatory practices.  The plaintiff may also be eligible for attorneys' fees. 

Did you catch that?  It is in the last sentence.  Attorneys' fees.  The employee may not obtain a dime in damages, but the attorney will get paid!  What a wonderful system we have.  Lawsuits brought for the primary -- or sole -- purpose of attorneys' fees. 

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