Disability Discrimination: Employer’s Intent to Discriminate

In a disability discrimination case against an employer, does the employee have to prove that the employer’s alleged discriminatory action was based on the employer’s animus in proving intent to to discriminate?

Of course, that question was answered by the California Supreme Court in Harris v. City of Santa Monica, 56 Cal. 4th 203 (2013) which held the requisite discriminatory intent is proven by showing the employee’s actual or perceived disability was a substantial motivating factor/reason for the discrimination.

So the employee doesn’t have to show animus or ill-will against the employee.

In a recent case from the Fifth District Court of Appeal, this issue was highlighted and the court explained that even if the employer acted against the employee based on erroneous or mistaken beliefs about the employee’s physical condition, the employer is still liable for disability discrimination if the employee shows his or her disability was a substantial motivating factor in the discrimination.

I thought that was settled with Harris, but apparently some defense counsel, who cheered when Harris was decided, urged the trial court to include in the jury instructions a requirement that the employee had to prove animus or ill-will motivated the employer.

Well, defense counsel convinced the trial judge that was appropriate and defendant prevailed at trial. But fortunately the Fifth District Panel read Harris and reversed the judgment.

Defense counsel might have figured they were so clever at trial, but now after the appeal and a new trial on damages, their client, the County of Stanislaus, will get to entertain an attorney’s fee petition from plaintiff’s counsel.

So there’s a little justice in defendant having to pay plaintiff’s counsel for having to brief and argue an appeal just to show defendant’s counsel misled the trial court.

And I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that when defense counsel does entertain plaintiff counsel’s petition for attorney’s fees, they will file an opposition arguing that even though plaintiff won, plaintiff didn’t win that much, and plaintiff’s attorney just got lucky.

It always cracks me up when I read those oppositions!

Wallace v. County of Stanislaus
2016 WL 758609
February 25, 2016

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