Recently the Court of Appeals issued a decision in a California employment discrimination case involving several claims, including pregnancy-related and sex discrimination. The plaintiff asserts that her employer, a dental group, terminated her position because she attempted to become pregnant. In response, the defendant argued that the decision did not stem from discrimination. Instead, the defendant contended that the company was undergoing a reorganization; the plaintiff lost her job because her performance scores put her at the bottom of the metric they used to rate employee performance.
Under California law, courts use the federal burden-shifting test for evaluating wrongful discharge lawsuits. In these cases, plaintiffs must show that the employer’s actions were more likely than not based on a prohibited discriminatory criterion. If the plaintiff meets this burden, a presumption of discrimination arises, and the employer must establish a legitimate, nondiscriminatory reason for their action. If the employer meets this burden, the burden shifts back onto the employee to establish “substantial evidence” that the defendant’s nondiscriminatory reason was pre-textual or that the employer acted with animus.
Under this framework, an employee’s evidence is subject to scrutiny, and their subjective belief does not create a genuine issue of material fact. Instead, the proffered evidence must establish a causal link between the employer’s motivation and termination. Moreover, circumstantial evidence of discrimination must be “substantial” and specific.”