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AIDS Discrimination Victim Gets New Trial

Thursday, March 25th, 2010

Admission Of EEOC No Probable Cause Determination Is Reversible Error

I ran across this case recently and I think it’s definitely worth talking about.  It deals with a real problem in discrimination cases that has been around for as long as I can remember and it affects just about everyone who files an EEOC charge.

The case, Byrd v. BT Foods, Inc., addresses the controversial issue regarding the admissibility of  EEOC findings at trial and it’s a good result for employees.

What’s The Problem?

When an individual files an EEOC charge, the EEOC  conducts an investigation. At its conclusion, the EEOC issues a determination letter stating one of two things:

  1. there was probable cause to believe that discrimination, retaliation, etc. occurred or
  2. there was no probable cause to believe that a violation of the civil rights law occurred

After the determination, the EEOC issues a Notice of Dismissal and Notice of Right to Sue which gives the individual the right to go to court.

Here’s the potential problem for the employee who did not prevail at the EEOC (or its state counterpart).  At trial, the employer always tries to introduce the EEOC dismissal and no probable cause determination.

In effect,  the employer wants to argue to the jury, “the government investigated this case, didn’t find discrimination, and you shouldn’t either.” It doesn’t take Clarence Darrow to figure out that this argument can be quite damaging to the plaintiff’s case at trial.

What Happened In The Case

Cemeshia Byrd worked at Wendy’s in Coral Springs, Florida. Byrd filed a lawsuit against BT Foods (doing business as Wendy’s Coral Springs) claiming that she was discriminated against when she was terminated because she had Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

Discrimination because of AIDS is illegal in the U.S. under the Americans with Disabilities Act. It’s also illegal under many state civil rights laws, including the Florida Omnibus Aids Act and the Florida Civil Rights Act.

Before proceeding to court, Byrd filed a charge of discrimination with the Broward County Civil Rights Division, an agency which conducts investigations for the Equal Opportunity Commission.

After receiving a no probable cause letter of determination, Byrd filed a lawsuit in Broward County Circuit Court claiming discrimination and intentional infliction of emotional distress.

Before trial, Byrd filed a Motion in Limine — which is a request for an order to exclude the admission of particular evidence at trial. Generally the gist of the augment on a Motion in Limine is that:

  • the evidence is irrelevant, highly prejudicial, or hearsay and
  • the jury should not be able to hear or see the evidence nor should there be any reference to it

In this case, Byrd asked for an exclusion of EEOC documents including the Notice of Determination and Notice of Dismissal of her EEOC charge.

She argued that the EEOC “NO PROBABLE CAUSE STATEMENT” written in capital letters in the Notice of Determination were highly misleading, unduly prejudicial, and too conclusory to provide any meaningful probative value . She also argued that the jury would be likely to give the dismissal and “no probable cause determination” more weight than is appropriate.

The judge ruled against Byrd and in favor of BT Foods on the Motion in Limine. During the trial, according to Byrd, BT Foods made the reasonable cause determination the centerpiece of its defense.

Byrd lost her jury trial and filed an appeal. In it she claimed that the court’s admission of the EEOC findings constituted reversible error which entitled her to a new trial.

The Court’s Ruling

With no Florida cases on point, the Fourth District Court of Appeals of Florida looked to federal law for guidance on the issue of admissibility of EEOC findings at trial.

It noted that the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals considered an EEOC determination “ordinarily admissible” and a decision which “rationalized that the reports are ‘highly probative’ due to the training and experience of the EEOC investigators.”

On the other hand, it went on to note that many federal courts have concluded that EEOC letters of determination are inherently prejudicial. The Court ultimately agreed that the letters in Byrd’s case should not have been admitted.

The Court wrote:

We agree with the reasoning of these courts, that a jury may find it hard, if not impossible, to independently evaluate the evidence presented to the parties after being informed that the EEOC has already investigated the claim and determined that reasonable cause does or does not exist to believe that unlawful discrimination has occurred…..

Several courts have reasoned that similar conclusory administrative determination letters, i.e., those which do little more than take sides, enjoy particularly low probative value, but possess especially high dangers of unfair prejudice.

The Court ruled that Byrd’s Motion in Limine should have been granted, reversed the lower court, and remanded the case for a new trial.

Take Away

The admissibility of EEOC findings has been plaguing lawyers who try discrimination cases since the civil rights laws were first passed. The whole issue has become much more important with the enactment of laws which give civil rights plaintiffs the right to to jury trials.

My former law students may recall that one of the first assignments I gave them was to draft a Motion in Limine regarding the admissibility of a probable cause finding and and argue its admissibility or exclusion.

As far as trials go, it should come as no surprise that  those of us who represent employees argue vociferously for the admission of a positive finding of discrimination by the EEOC. We argue just as strongly for the exclusion of a no probable cause finding.

Lawyers who represent employers of course make the same kind of arguments in reverse. I have had judges who have allowed the evidence in. I have had judges who have excluded it.

That’s why any law on this subject is helpful.

images: www.karlonia.com

*This blog originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on March 26, 2010. Reprinted with permission by the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. She’s recognized as one of the first and foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. Ellen’s a legal analyst and is available to discuss high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and women’s issues. Quoted often in local and national news media, Ellen has been a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net or call 1-888-915-1952.

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