A state appeals court has just reversed part of a jury award based on a new California Supreme Court requirement that employees prove that discrimination was “a substantial motivating factor” for the firing rather than merely a motivating factor. However, no such rule applies to harassment claims.
Recent case: Edward, who is white, was hired to turn around a maintenance department in the San Bernardino Unified School District. He had great success, reforming a department known for waste, employee drug use and other problems. However, he was abrasive, often telling racist and sexual jokes. Subordinates loathed him.
Then a new school superintendent came on board. He was Hispanic and hired or promoted many fellow Hispanics. The superintendent also announced that he wouldn’t tolerate any criticism—on pain of firing.
Edward soon landed in trouble after he spoke out on many issues, including what he perceived as pro-Hispanic bias in hiring. He was suspended, reinstated, given janitorial assignments, assigned to do no work and then more work than he could possibly do. Eventually he was terminated.
He sued, alleging discrimination and a hostile work environment. He won a jury award, but the school district appealed.
Meanwhile, the California Supreme Court ruled that to prove discrimination, a former employee must show that discrimination was a “substantial motivating factor” in a discharge decision, not merely “a factor.”
But Edward was fired in part for his abrasivestyle.
Because the jury had used the wrong standard, the court threw out the discrimination award. It said Edward’s hostile environment claim, based on pro-Hispanic bias, didn’t pass muster. (Norton v. San Bernardino City Unified School District, No. G049496, Court of Appeal of California, 4th Appellate District, 2014)