Timing Proves Critical to Failure of Employer’s Defense in California Woman’s Pregnancy Discrimination Case

Pregnant-WomanA former employee at a financial firm was entitled to damages and attorneys’ fees for pregnancy discrimination, according to a Los Angeles County trial court. The California Court of Appeal recently upheld that decision in the woman’s Fair Employment and Housing Act case, since the employer failed to prove that it would have fired the employee in the same timeframe if it had not known about her pregnancy.

The employee in the case, Fatanah LaFleur, had worked at Woodbridge Structured Funding, LLC for only a few months when she became pregnant. Shortly thereafter, Woodbridge terminated the woman. LaFleur sued under the FEHA, claiming that Woodbridge fired her due to her pregnancy and that she was the second woman to suffer such treatment within a month. LaFleur’s supervisor claimed that he did not know about the pregnancy and fired the woman for gossiping and disrupting the office’s staff.

As part of its defense, the employer claimed that, even if it knew about the woman’s pregnancy, it would have fired LaFleur for her poor job performance, regardless of her condition. The jury in the case, however, determined that the employer would not have taken the action it did, in the same timeframe that it did, if not for LaFleur’s pregnancy.

The employee received an award of damages totaling $30,000, plus attorneys’ fees in excess of $160,000. The employer appealed, but to no avail. The employer’s argument centered upon the claim that the judge gave the jury incorrect or misleading instructions regarding Woodbridge’s “mixed-motive” defense. Under California law, an employer can escape liability for discrimination under the FEHA if the discrimination was not a “substantial factor” causing the employee’s termination. In other words, if the employer would have fired that employee for valid, nondiscriminatory reasons anyway, it would not be liable.

In LaFleur’s case, the judge instructed the jury that they needed to decide whether or not Woodbridge would have fired the woman for poor performance in the same timeframe as it did, even if she had not been pregnant. (The jury decided that Woodbridge would not have done so.) Contrary to what Woodbridge argued, this instruction from the judge was not misleading or inaccurate. The answer correctly summarized the state of the law of mixed-motive defenses following the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris v. City of Santa Monica. That decision stated that an employer could escape liability if it could prove that “legitimate, nondiscriminatory reasons would have led it to make the same decision at the time.” The jury concluded that the employer failed to prove this, so the mixed-motive defense failed.

Woodbridge’s appeal of the attorneys’ fees also failed. Contrary to the employer’s contention, an employee’s FEHA discrimination case does not always need to make an “important contribution to the public interest” in order to justify a court in awarding attorneys’ fees. The law states that employees are only ineligible to receive attorneys’ fees if their cases have “no broad public impact or … are factually or legally weak.” LaFleur’s case was factually and legally strong, so awarding her attorneys’ fees was entirely proper.

Winning your discrimination case against your employer requires success in many battles, including both presenting a compelling case of a FEHA violation as well as defeating your employer’s defenses. The Oakland employment law attorneys at the Law Offices of Stephen M. Fuerch are here to help you. Our attorneys have many years of experience helping employees who have faced discrimination just like you. Don’t fight alone. Contact us through our website or call our office at (925) 463-1073 to schedule your confidential initial consultation today.

More blog posts:

Supervisors, Stress, and Your California Disability Discrimination Case, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, June 30, 2015

Northern California Mom Launches Class Action Against Employer for Refusing to Extend Reasonable Accommodation of Her Pregnancy, Oakland Personal Injury Attorney Blog, May 30, 2014