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California Supreme Court issues clearer standard for bias claims

California law prohibits employers from taking any adverse action against an employee or job applicant because of discrimination on the basis of a protected status. In some cases, though, the alleged discrimination may be mixed in with legitimate reasons for taking adverse action. Until recently, courts in California have not had a clear standard to work with in these so-called "mixed-motive" cases.

The California Supreme Court recently ruled that in mixed-motive cases, the employee has the responsibility to show that illegal discrimination was a "substantial factor" in the employer's decision to take adverse action. If the employee can prove this, then the burden falls on the employer to show that it would have done the same thing, even if discrimination is removed from the picture.

The case stemmed from a 2004 dispute involving a bus driver for the City of Santa Monica. During her probationary period, the driver had two accidents and two unexcused absences. Because she was still on probation, this was sufficient to put her future employment into question under city policy.

While the employee was under review, she notified her boss that she was pregnant. The supervisor asked the employee to get a doctor's permission to work. The doctor gave clearance for limited duties. Six days after the employee made the notification, she was fired from her job.

The employee sued, claiming she was fired on the basis of pregnancy discrimination. The city, in its defense, claimed that the firing was based on poor performance.

Under the new standard, employers cannot be held liable for discrimination if there was a legitimate basis for the action, unless that basis is mere pretext for discrimination.

Source: HR.BLR.com, "Discrimination: California Supreme Court clarifies mixed motive defense," April 8, 2013

Our law firm represents the victims of pregnancy discrimination and other forms of bias in California. For more information on this issue, please visit our website.

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