Alamo v Practice Management Information Corporation (California Court of Appeals, Second Appellate District, Division Seven, decided on October 18, 2012), clarifies the standard of causation for employment discrimination claims in California, as well as the circumstances under which attorney fees can be awarded.
Following the termination of her employment, plaintiff Alamo filed a civil action against her former employer, PMIC, alleging, in relevant part, (1) pregnancy discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (“FEHA”) and (2) wrongful termination in violation of public policy.
The case was tried before a jury, which rendered a general verdict in Alamo’s favor and awarded attorney fees. PMIC appealed, claiming that the trial court had committed errors in its instructions to the jury. First, PMIC argued, the court had erroneously instructed the jury that Alamo merely had to prove her pregnancy was a “motivating reason” for her discharge, rather than the “but for” cause of her discharge. PMIC also contended that the court erred in failing to instruct the jury that PMIC could avoid liability under a mixed motive defense by proving it would have made the same decision even in the absence of a discriminatory motive.
The Court of Appeal found that the trial court had made no instructional error. Under California cases interpreting FEHA, the discriminatory motive needed only be a motivating reason for the adverse employment action, and need not be a “but for cause.” The Court contrasted the FEHA rule with that of the federal Age Discrimination and Employment Act (ADEA), which does require the discriminatory motive be a but for cause.
Furthermore, as neither party had presented the case as a “mixed motive” case (i.e., a case where both legitimate and illegitimate motives were allegedly behind the termination), the trial court did not err in failing to inform the jury that PMIC could avoid liability by proving it would have made the same decision even in the absence of discriminatory motive.
However, as the Court of Appeal noted, the question of the proper standard of causation in a FEHA claim, including the availability of the mixed motive defense, is currently pending before the California Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica, review granted April 22, 2010. Thus, the Court made its ruling “[p]ending further guidance on this issue by the Supreme Court.”
Finally, the Court held that the award of attorney fees was not in error. With respect to this, PMIC had argued that attorney fee awards were available under FEHA but not for common law wrongful termination claims. PMIC maintained that, because the jury had issued a general verdict, there was no indication that Alamo had prevailed on the FEHA claim, rather than the wrongful termination claim. The Court held that this argument was barred under the doctrine of “invited error,” which provides that where a party by his conduct induces the commission of error, he is estopped from asserting it as a ground for reversal on appeal. The record indicated that PMIC had deliberately agreed to the general verdict form in order to be able to challenge an attorney fee award. It had thus deliberately “invited” the error it complained of. Furthermore, because Alamo’s wrongful termination claim was derivative of her FEHA claim, Alamo necessarily prevailed on the FEHA claim. Thus, the award of attorney fees was appropriate for this reason as well.
Causation in FEHA cases will continue to be in flux until the Supreme Court rules on Harris v. City of Santa Monica. We will follow the progress of that case and provide updates on this blog when they occur.