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Mixed-Motive Termination: What is It and How Does It Work?

February 7, 2023 Employment Law

Even though California is an at-will employment state, you can still pursue a claim against your employer for wrongful termination in the following situations: 

  1. You were terminated in violation of your employment contract, either express or implied
  2. You were terminated in retaliation for exercising your protected rights
  3. You were fired for discriminatory reasons

While this sounds very straightforward, the reality is that many terminations can be quite complicated. The employee may have been terminated for a variety of reasons, some valid, some merely pretextual, and some illegal. 

If you have been terminated and your situation is complicated, do not lose hope. An experienced wrongful termination attorney can guide you through your options and your remedies. 

Mixed-Motive Terminations

A mixed-motive termination is one where the employee was terminated for more than one reason, and at least one of those reasons was legitimate. For example, an employee may have been fired both because they reported some serious OSHA violations and because they were significantly underperforming on the job.

It is unlikely that your employer would admit that they wrongfully terminated you. Instead, they will likely cite the legitimate reason – such as underperformance or insubordination as the basis for your termination. As a result, you will need to gather your own evidence to support your claim that your termination was wrongful. A wrongful termination attorney will know what evidence you need and how to get it in order to build your case. 

Mixed-Motive Termination is an Employer Defense 

If you decide to pursue a claim, it is not your responsibility to explain all of the reasons why you were terminated. You only need to focus on why you believe you were wrongfully terminated and the evidence you have that supports your case. 

Mixed-motive termination is raised by your employer as a defense – they will have the opportunity to argue that there was a valid reason for your termination other than what you claim. To support this position, they need to do two things: 

  1. Introduce evidence that supports the reason they claim that you were fired; and
  2. Introduce evidence that suggests that their reason for terminating you was a “substantially motivating factor.” 

For example, let’s say an employee becomes pregnant and is soon after terminated by her employer. In her wrongful termination claim, she claims that her supervisor expressed reservations about her ability to do her job if she was pregnant. In response, her employer asserts that she routinely arrived at work late, left early, and even missed her shift a couple of times. To support the mixed-motive termination defense, her employer would need to do the following: 

  • Provide records that reflect her attendance issues
  • Demonstrate that would typically result in termination (e.g. producing records reflecting that other employees were terminated for similar attendance issues)

Note that her employer does not necessarily need to deny her supervisor’s statement concerning her ability to perform her job duties while pregnant. In some cases, the employer may even admit that a discriminatory incident took place or that the termination may have otherwise been a breach of the employment contract. 

Mixed-motive termination cases are never easy.  Ultimately, it may be up to a jury as to whether you have a valid wrongful termination claim or whether your employer had a valid basis to fire you. That said, a wrongful termination lawyer will be able to assess your chances and then build the strongest case possible if you decide to proceed.   

Possible Outcomes in a Mixed-Motive Termination Case

If the employee prevails in their claim, then they would be entitled to all of the damages that would be typically awarded in a wrongful termination case: 

  • Front and back pay
  • Expenses incurred as a result of your termination
  • Compensation for any mental or emotional suffering caused by your termination
  • Punitive damages if the termination was particularly malicious

In addition, the court may order reinstatement, requiring the employer to return the employee to their prior job. 

The situation becomes more complicated if the employer prevails on the mixed-motive defense. In that scenario, the court will not order reinstatement or award any compensatory damages or back pay. However, the court may order injunctive relief such as mandatory anti-discrimination training or require the employer to pay the employee’s legal fees and court costs. 

What You Can Do 

Again, if your termination was complicated, do not lose hope. However, you will be much more likely to prevail in your case if you work with a wrongful termination lawyer who has experience in handling mixed-motive termination cases. 

If you decide to work with a lawyer, it is critical that you be candid and upfront with them about your previous employment situation: 

  • Discuss any performance issues that you may have had and what issues were raised in your performance reviews
  • Discuss whether you engaged in any illegal or unethical conduct in connection with your employment 
  • Discuss any inappropriate workplace relationships you may have had or personal conflicts with co-workers

Generally speaking, you want to disclose anything that might be used against you by your employer. From there, you should provide as much detail as you can as to why you believe you were wrongfully terminated. If you have any documents or other evidence that support your claim, bring them with you to your initial consultation. Otherwise, your attorney will know how to obtain the evidence you need. 

Have You Been Wrongfully Terminated? Contact Attorneys for Employees

Terminations are never easy and are often complicated. If you believe you have been wrongfully terminated, do not worry about what your employer might say – we can review your case and determine whether you have a claim. To get started on putting your termination behind you, call us today at 310-601-1330 or complete our online contact form to schedule a consultation.