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No damages for employees fired for both lawful and unlawful reasons

Further muddying the issue of “mixed motives” in employment discrimination, the California Supreme Court ruled that, when employees are fired for both lawful and unlawful reasons (i.e., with mixed motives), they can seek injunctions and recover attorneys’ fees but not monetary damages for lost pay and emotional distress. In Harris v. City of Santa Monica, a city bus driver sued after she was fired shortly after telling her supervisor she was pregnant. The employee claimed she was fired because of her pregnancy, whereas the City claimed it was because of the employee’s past performance problems. At trial, the employee won almost $180,000 in damages and $400,000 in attorneys’ fees. On appeal, the Court first debated the showing employees need to make to establish discrimination claims: Did unlawful discrimination play some role in their firing (the best standard for employees)? Was it the “but for” reason for the firing (the best for employers)? Or was it a “substantial motivating factor” (something in between)? While the Court chose the middle ground standard, it nonetheless clarified that if employees only prove that discrimination was a substantial motivating factor in terminations, they cannot recover monetary damages. They can, however, still recover attorneys’ fees and seek injunctions, since showing that unlawful discrimination substantially caused a firing should not be an “empty gesture.”