California Employment Law Blog

Lin v. Kaiser: Understanding Mixed Motive Claims in FEHA Disability Cases

Posted by Timothy B. Del Castillo | Mar 06, 2024 | 0 Comments

The Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA) in California establishes a comprehensive framework for addressing disability discrimination in the workplace. First, it is the responsibility of the plaintiff to establish a prima facie case of discrimination. Following this, the burden shifts to the employer to present legitimate, non-discriminatory reasons for the adverse employment actions taken. Then, the plaintiff may attempt to show that these reasons are merely pretexts for underlying discrimination.

Failure by the plaintiff to demonstrate pretext allows for summary judgment in favor of the employer. However, FEHA notably allows adjudication of "mixed motive" claims. Here, the disability does not need to be the sole cause behind an employment decision but must be a significant factor. The case of Lin v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals (2023) exemplifies this "mixed motive" scenario within the context of employment discrimination.

Suchin Lin had been a committed employee of Kaiser since 1999 and had received positive performance evaluations throughout her tenure. This all changed when, in December 2018, she was listed as part of a potential Reduction in Force (RIF), allegedly due to performance issues, although there was a notable absence of clear documentation for these issues. Her situation worsened following a workplace injury in January 2019, which led to downgraded performance evaluations during the RIF process. Despite her injury and multiple requests for accommodation, Lin was subjected to more negative performance evaluations, ultimately leading to her termination in June 2019.

Lin subsequently filed a lawsuit against Kaiser under FEHA, alleging disability discrimination, retaliation, failure to accommodate, wrongful termination, and emotional distress. In its defense, Kaiser claimed that the decision to terminate Lin had been made before her disability in 2018. Lin argued that the reevaluation of her performance following her disability suggested discrimination and inadequate accommodation. At trial, the court sided with Kaiser, granting summary judgment in their favor, but Lin appealed.

Upon its review, the Court of Appeal observed that Lin's inclusion in the RIF list of December 2018 seemed provisional, especially considering subsequent revisions to the list and the exploration of other cost-saving options by Kaiser in the following months. The changing nature of the RIF process, together with the negative performance evaluations that occurred after Lin's disability became apparent, could plausibly support a claim of discrimination.

Additionally, while Kaiser had described the post-2018 performance assessments as routine, the Court of Appeal viewed this argument with skepticism. From the Court's view, a jury could infer that these evaluations were instrumental in Lin's termination, especially given the ambiguous reasons for her initial inclusion in the December 2018 RIF. For the Court, this raised questions about the influence of Lin's disability on her termination, undermining Kaiser's claim of procedural fairness.

Furthermore, evidence showed a decline in Lin's performance evaluations after her disability was disclosed, deviating from her historically positive reviews. The timing of this change in evaluation, along with her supervisor's knowledge of Lin's disability-related challenges, indicated potential disability bias against her. From this evidence, the Court found that Lin's dismissal was not merely procedural but significantly influenced by her disability, thereby questioning Kaiser's rationale and suggesting possible liability for disability discrimination.

Taking the evidence together, the Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's summary adjudication of Lin's claims. It concluded that, despite Kaiser's initial consideration to terminate Lin before her disability in December 2018, their subsequent negative evaluations and failure to accommodate following her January 2019 injury significantly contributed to her termination, thus establishing a viable claim of disability discrimination under FEHA.

Lin v. Kaiser Foundation Hospitals underscores the importance of documentation in "mixed motive" discrimination claims. Employers are advised to ensure transparent, well-documented rationales for employment decisions, particularly in situations like RIFs, and to proactively engage in accommodating disabilities. Meanwhile, employees are encouraged to be informed about their rights, to diligently document their employment experiences, and to engage in seeking accommodations and addressing discrimination concerns. Individuals facing potential workplace discrimination should always seek qualified legal advice.

About the Author

Timothy B. Del Castillo

Tim Del Castillo is Founding Partner of Castle Law: California Employment Counsel, PC.


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