February 8, 2013

Harris v. City of Santa Monica: Great For Employers, But Will It Last?

Today, the California Supreme Court issued the much-awaited decision in Harris v. City of Santa Monica, a case which tested the viability of the so-called “mixed motive” defense for employers in a discrimination case.

In a 6-0 opinion, the court found that an employer had a complete defense to all claims for damages if it could establish that its decisions were motivated by both legitimate and discriminatory reasons.  The court also found, however, that employees could pursue claims for injunctive or declaratory relief and their attorneys could recover their fees in appropriate cases.

Although it’s a major win for employers, the real question is whether the decision will stand the test of time.  In 1989, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a similar decision as to “mixed motives” under Title VII, allowing the defense as a complete bar to discrimination claims, only to have a Democratic Congress amend the statute two years later.  With Democrats holding a super-majority in both the State Assembly and the Senate and a Democratic governor, one could reasonably question whether the Legislature will follow that lead and amend the FEHA to do away with the mixed motive defense.  Time will tell.