California Supreme Court Rules On Mixed Motive Defense in FEHA Employment Discrimination Case: Harris v. City of Santa Monica


by Sayema Hameed

The California Supreme Court has issued an important decision on the use of the “mixed motive” defense in employment discrimination cases brought under California’s Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”), ruling that employers will not be liable for damages such as back pay in employment discrimination cases where the employee would have been fired for legitimate business reasons in the absence of the discrimination.

FEHA prohibits employment discrimination because of race, religious creed, color, national origin, ancestry, physical disability, mental disability, medical condition, genetic information, marital status, sex, gender, gender identity, gender expression, age, or sexual orientation.  In order to prove employment discrimination, a plaintiff must show that the unlawful discrimination was a “motivating factor” or reason for the employer’s adverse employment action (such as termination, demotion, etc.) against the employee.

Employers commonly assert the “mixed motive” defense to defeat employment discrimination claims.  Under the mixed motive defense, if the employer can prove that it would have made the same adverse employment decision based on a legitimate reason, standing alone, even if no discrimination was present, then the employer will not be liable under FEHA.

In Harris v. City of Santa Monica (Cal. Sup. Ct. Case No. S181004, filed February 7, 2013), the California Supreme Court was asked to determine whether FEHA allows the “mixed motive” defense.  The Supreme Court held as follows:

We hold that under the FEHA, 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. In light of FEHA’s express purpose of not only redressing but also preventing and deterring unlawful discrimination in the workplace, the plaintiff in this circumstance could still be awarded, where appropriate, declaratory relief or injunctive relief to stop discriminatory practices.  In addition, the plaintiff may be eligible for reasonable attorney’s fees and costs.