Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘evidence’

Age Discrimination Gets Attention Of Congress

Friday, May 14th, 2010

Hearings Held On Federal Discrimination Bill To Overturn Gross Decision

Last week, both the House and Senate held hearings on the Protecting Older Workers Against Discrimination Act (POWADA) (H.R. 3721, S. 1756). The legislation would overturn the awful Gross v. FBL Financials Services, Inc. case decided by the Supreme Court last year. If passed,  the bill will apply retroactively to all cases pending on or after June 17, 2009, the date of the Gross decision.

Simply stated, the Gross decision holds age discrimination plaintiffs to a higher standard of proof than other victims of discrimination by requiring them to prove that their age was the “but for” cause of the employer’s adverse decision instead of  “a motivating factor.” I predicted, as did others, that Gross would get a Congressional fix and that’s exactly what POWADA does – and more.

For one, POWADA allows the plaintiff to win an age discrimination case by proving that:

(A) an impermissible factor under the Act (the discrimination statute) was a motivating factor for the practice complained of  — even if other factors also motivated the practice, or

(B) the practice complained of would not have occurred in the absence of an impermissible factor.

The legislation also establishes that:

  • standards of proof for all federal laws forbidding discrimination and retaliation (including whistleblowing) are the same
  • the plaintiff can choose the method of proof for the case, including the McDonnell Douglas framework
  • employees can rely on any type or form of admissible circumstantial or direct evidence to prove their discrimination and retaliation cases

The Act explicitly states that the standard for proving unlawful disparate treatment under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 and other anti-discrimination and anti-retaliation laws is no different than the standard of proof under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, including amendments made by the Civil Rights Act of 1991.

In other words, all plaintiffs in discrimination cases will be held to the same standards of proof and will be able to prove their discrimination cases in the same way. While this is most certainly what Congress intended in the first place, it will be very beneficial for all of us who litigate these cases — and our clients — to have these evidentiary matters settled once and for all.

image: www.conversantlife.com/files/imagecache/blog_wizard/files/blog_wizard/proof.png

*This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on May 9, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

Truck Driver Wins Gender Discrimination Case In Fourth Circuit

Thursday, April 29th, 2010

Court Elaborates On Types Of  Evidence For Proof Of  Discrimination

The recent case of Merritt v. Old Dominion Freight is hands down one of the best decisions I have come across in a long time.

It addresses gender discrimination, sex stereotyping, and a corporate culture of discrimination in a way few cases have. It’s simply a great case for employees – particularly for victims of sex discrimination.

What Happened In The Case

Merritt worked as a line haul truck drive for Old Dominion, a nationwide trucking company. As a line haul driver, Merritt made lengthy cross-country trips. She performed her duties without incident or complaint. At some point, Merritt became interested in becoming a pickup and delivery driver so she could work more regular hours and spend  nights and weekends at home.

To prove that she could do the job, she filled in numerous times as a pickup and delivery driver, and once again performed the duties without incident or complaint.

When a permanent pickup and delivery position became available at Old Dominion’s Lynchburg Virginia terminal, Merritt talked to Bobby Howard, the terminal manager about it. Howard told her that he lacked the authority to fill the position and proceeded to hire a less experienced man for the job.

The following year another permanent pickup and delivery position became available in Lynchburg and Merritt again expressed an interest in the position to Howard. Once again, Merritt was passed over in favor of a less experienced male.

When Merritt asked why she was not hired, Howard told her that :

  • it was decided and they could not let a woman have that position.
  • the company did not really have women drivers in the city (as pick up and deliver drivers)

On another occasion he told her:

  • the Regional VP was worried about hiring a female pickup and deliver driver because women were more injury prone and he was aftaid a female would get hurt
  • the VP didn’t think a girl should have that position

Finally, a year later, Old Dominion hired Merritt to fill a permanent Pickup and Delivery position in Lynchburg. Merritt was placed on a ninety-day probationary and told she could lose her job if any performance problems arose. Male drivers were not subject to similar probationary terms.

For the next two years, Merritt performed her Pickup and Delivery duties without a problem. Unfortunately, she then suffered an ankle injury at work which was diagnosed as plantar fascititis with a superimposed strain. She was put on light duty work by her doctor at first, but a couple of months later, he gave her a clean bill of health.

When she attempted to return to her regular duties, Brian Stoddard, Vice President of Safety and Personnel, required Merritt to take a physical ability test (“PAT”), a full-body test divided into six components that evaluates the test taker’s general strength, agility, and cardiovascular endurance. The test was graded on a pass/fail basis. The PAT was created for Old Dominion to be used in the hiring process and had been used to evaluate potential hires, but only on a variable basis.

Merritt struggled with several segments of the test and received a failing grade. According to Merritt, the tasks she had problems with had nothing to do with her ankle. In one portion of the test, for example, Merritt was unable to place a box of weight on an overhead shelf simply because she was too short.

After receiving the results of Merritt’s PAT, Stoddard terminated Merritt’s employment. Merritt filed a charge of sex discrimination with the EEOC and then filed a lawsuit in federal court in Western District of Virginia claiming that Old Dominion terminated her because of her gender in violation of Title VII Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The district court granted judgment against Merritt because it found that Old Dominion produced a legitimate reason for firing Merritt (she failed the PAT) and because she had not produced any evidence that Stoddard (the decision maker) harbored any “discriminatory animus” towards Merritt. Merritt appealed.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals Reverses

Title VII makes it unlawful to discriminate against an individual on the basis of sex. The most prevalent  method of establishing discrimination is under the burden-shifting framework set forth in the Supreme Court case of McDonnell Douglas Corp v. Green which goes like this:

  • The plaintiff makes out a prima facie case of discrimination
  • The burden shifts to the employer to articulate a legitimate, non-discriminatory justification for its allegedly discriminatory action
  • If the employer carries this burden, the plaintiff then has an opportunity to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that the neutral reason offered by the employer was not a true reason but a pretext for discrimination.

Ultimately, the plaintiff has the burden of proving that he or she was a victim of intentional discrimination.

In this case, Old Dominion put forth its legitimate non discriminatory justification for discharging Merritt – her failure to pass the PAT.  That proved, according to Old Dominion, that Merritt did not have the “requisite physical strength to safely perform the job duties.” Merritt insisted that this rationale was a pretext for discrimination.

The Court of Appeals agreed with Merritt and found that the “record as a whole supports Merritt’s claim that a jury could find that discrimination on the basis of gender was afoot.”

According to the Court, Merritt produced plenty of  evidence that Old Dominion’s explanation for her discharge was “unworthy of credence.” For example, Merritt’s doctor stated that there was nothing about Merritt’s medical condition which would have prevented her from performing her job duties as a Pickup and Delivery driver. As the Court pointed out:

Old Dominion terminated a good employee who, pre-injury, performed her job ably and without complaint and who, post-injury was both willing and able to report to this same job for work. These facts, if believed, would allow a jury to think Old Dominion was simply looking for a reason to get rid of Merritt.

In addition, the Court found that Merritt produced evidence of discriminatory intent. For one:

  • Injured male employees did not have to take the PAT test
  • Merritt produced evidence that the policy requiring all injured employees to take the PAT test did not exist

As the Court stated:

While a neutral policy serving Old Dominion’s legitimate business interests in public and employee safety could certainly be put in place, a trier of fact could reasonably find that Old Dominion’s selective application and ever-changing rationales for the PAT were designed to conceal intent to reserve the plum Pickup and Delivery positions for male drivers.

In addition, the district court ignored evidence of the corporate culture of discrimination produced by Merritt. The Court stated:

It is not unfair to observe that the corporate culture evinced a very specific yet pervasive aversion to the idea of a female Pickup and Delivery Drivers. Old Dominion employees, of all ranks, seemed to share a view that women were unfit for that position. …..

While the views of others are no proof of the views of Stoddard, at some point the corporate environment in which he worked places Stoddard’s own selective use of the PAT in Merritt’s case in a less neutral context.

In Lattieri v. Equant, ….[w]e deemed the plaintiff’s ‘powerful evidence showing a discriminatory attitude at her company of employment toward female managers’ sufficient to ‘allow a trier of fact to conclude that these discriminatory attitudes led to plaintiff’s ultimate termination.’ Likewise here.

The sum, the Court said:

Old Dominion fired an employee who was, according to the district court, able to do her job without assistance and in a satisfactory manner’ due to a treatable ankle injury, while hiding behind the results of a selectively administered physical fitness test that test that did not even purport to test the injury, and while dubiously claiming that its decision was compelled by a late-blooming policy, all in the context of, to put it mildly, a sexually stereotype work environment.

In this case, it not any single piece of evidence but rather the evidence taken in its entirety that leads us to believe Merritt deserves a trial….

Based on all of the foregoing reasons, we reverse the district court’s grant of summary judgment to Old Dominion and remand for trial on Merritt’s Title VII claim.

Take Away

This case helps women in circumstances similar to Merritt’s – firefighters, police officers, constructions workers, etc. — those in male dominated physical professions who still face widespread discrimination because they are simply not wanted.

Just this past fall, I counseled a female firefighter who was repeatedly seeking a promotion, and forced to take numerous tests that were not required of her male counterparts. It’s not an unusual scenario though this type of discrimination is precisely what Title VII is aimed to prevent. The Merritt case, no doubt, should help women fight for equality in the workplace.

In a broad sense, this case hits so many of the issues that come up in discrimination cases all of the time – “stray remarks,” “post- hoc justifications,” “shifting explanations,” the parsing of evidence by district court judges — to name a few, and frames them in a way that will be extremely helpful to employees and their lawyers in discrimination litigation in the future.

images: rlv.zcache.com

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on April 28, 2010. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

Employee Has Privacy Interest In E-Mail Communications To Attorney On Company Computer

Thursday, April 15th, 2010

Employee’s E-Mails To Lawyer On Company Laptop Are Off Limits

The decision by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in Stengart v. Loving Care Agency has a lot  of lawyers talking. The case has to do with the privacy interests of an employee’s personal e-mail on a company computer and the attorney-client privilege.

The reason the case made ripples through the employment law community is because there simply aren’t many decisions on the issue and it hits a topic of real practical concern for both employers and employees.

What Happened In The Case

Marina Stengart worked for Loving Care Agency, Inc. (“Loving Care”), a home health care agency, as an Executive Director of Nursing.  Like many employers, Loving Care provided Stengart a laptop computer for company business. Stengart could send e-mails using her company e-mail account from the laptop and she could also access the Internet through Loving Care’s server.

In December of 2007, Stengart used her computer to access a personal, password-protected e-mail account on Yahoo’s website to communicate with an attorney about her situation at work. She never saved her Yahoo ID or password on the company laptop.

When she sent the personal e-mails Stengart didn’t know  that Loving Care’s browser software automatically saved a copy of each web page she viewed on the computer’s hard drive in a “cache” folder of temporary Internet files.

Stengart left Loving Care and returned the laptop computer.  A couple of months later, she filed a lawsuit with claims of discrimination, harassment and retaliation.

After the lawsuit was filed, Loving Care hired experts to create a forensic image of the laptop’s hard drive. Among the items retrieved were the e-mails Stengart exchanged with her lawyer via the personal Yahoo account.

Loving Care’s lawyers used the e-mails in the lawsuit. Stengart’s lawyers demanded that the e-mails be identified and returned. Loving Care’s Lawyers argued that Stengart had no expectation of privacy in light of the company’s electronic communications policy which stated in part:

  • Loving Care may review, access, and disclose all matters on the company’s media systems and services at any time
  • e-mails, Internet communications and computer files are the company’s business records and are not to be considered private or personal to any individual employee
  • occasional personal use of the computer is permitted

Stengart’s lawyers asked the trial court to order a return of the e-mails and disqualification of  Loving Care’s lawyers. The judge denied the request, concluding that Stengart waived the attorney client privilege by sending e-mails on the company computer.

Stenagart appealed.The Court of Appeals reversed.

It  found that Stengart had an expectation of privacy in the e-mails and that Loving Care’s lawyers violated the disciplinary rules by failing to alert Stengart’s lawyers that they had the e-mails before they read them.

It sent the case back to the trial court to determine whether disqualification of the firm, or some other sanction was appropriate. Loving Care appealed

The New Jersey Supreme Court Opinion

The Supreme Court of New Jersey agreed with Stengart and affirmed the Court of Appeals decision. In a long and thoughtful opinion, it framed the issue this way:

This case presents novel questions about the extent to which an employee can expect privacy and confidentiality  in personal e-mails with her attorney, which she accessed on a computer belonging to her employer.

Loving Care argued that its employees have no expectation of privacy in their use of company computers based on the company’s policy. It also contended that attorney client privilege either never attached or was waived.

Stengart argued that:

  1. she intended the e-mails with her lawyer to be confidential
  2. the company policy, even if it applied to her, failed to provide adequate warning that Loving Care would monitor the contents of e-mail sent from a personal account or save them on a hard drive
  3. when the lawyers encountered the e-mails, they should have been immediately returned

The Court found favor of Stengart.  In sum, this is what it held:

  • Under the circumstances, Stengart could reasonably expect that the e-mail communications with her lawyer through her personal, password protected, web-based e-mail account would remain private
  • Sending and receiving e-mails through the company laptop did not eliminate the attorney-client privilege that protected them
  • By using a personal e-mail account and not saving the password, Stengart had a subjective expectation of privacy
  • Her expectation of privacy was also objectively reasonable in light of the ambiguous language of the policy and the attorney-client nature of the communication
  • Stengart took reasonable steps to keep the messages confidential and did not know that Loving Care cold read communications sent on her Yahoo account

Regarding the company policy the Court wrote:

The Policy did not give Stengart, or a reasonable person in her position, cause to anticipate that Loving Care would be peering over her shoulder as she opened e-mails from her lawyer on her personal, password-protected Yahoo account.

None of this means that companies are prohibited from monitoring the use of workplace computers. As the Court stated:

Our conclusion that Stengart had an expectation of privacy in e-mails with her lawyer does not mean that employers cannot monitor or regulate the use of workplace computers.

Companies can adopt and enforce lawful policies relating to computer use to protect the assets, reputation, and productivity of a business and to ensure compliance with legitimate corporate policies…..

But employers have no need or basis to read the specific contents of personal, privileged, attorney-client communications in order to enforce corporate policy.

The Court also found that the defense lawyers should have promptly notified Stengart’s lawyers when they discovered the nature of the e-mails. It sent the case back to the trial court judge to determine whether the firm should be disqualified, costs should be imposed, or whether some other remedy was appropriate.

Take Away

I represent employees, and many communicate with me by e-mail. I am always concerned that somehow these e-mails are going to be read by their employers – so this case is very good news because it clearly states that these communications are privileged and protected.

Management lawyers who get these e-mails are prohibited from reading them, must return them, and can be disqualified or sanctioned if they don’t.

Having said that, employees should still be extremely careful if they don’t want their personal e-mails read by their employers —  which means that the best practice is not to use the company computer for personal e-mails or surfing the net.

As far as employers go,  you can bet (and others agree) that many are reviewing their policies and trying to figure out  and address the implications of this decision.

The bottom line is that employers do not have carte blanche to read employees’ private, confidential personal e-mails and even a very good corporate policy is not going to change that fact –at least  for now.

image: www.afcea.org

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on April 13, 2010. Reprinted with permission from the author.

About the Author: Ellen Simon: is recognized as one of the leading  employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States.She offers legal advice to individuals on employment rights, age/gender/race and disability discrimination, retaliation and sexual harassment. With a unique grasp of the issues, Ellen’s a sought-after legal analyst who discusses high-profile civil cases, employment discrimination and woman’s issues. Her blog, Employee Rights Post has dedicated readers who turn to Ellen for her advice and opinion. For more information go to www.ellensimon.net.

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.

Eighth Circuit Sets Record Straight On Age Discrimination

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

Age Discrimination Plaintiff Gets Great Decision From Court of Appeals

It looks like a typical age discrimination scenario. A supervisor makes hostile remarks about older employees and expresses a preference for younger ones. An older employee with an excellent record gets fired for trumped-up reasons and a younger employee is hired to replace her.

What seems like an obvious case of age discrimination was not so obvious to the Federal District Court in the Western District of Missouri when it threw out the case of Baker v. Silver Oak Senior Living Mgt. Co. on summary judgment.

Fortunately, the Eighth District Court of Appeals reversed this month in an important opinion about the proper interpretation of evidence in an age discrimination case. 

What Happened In The Case

Kathy Baker worked as the director of assisted living at a center operated by Silver Oak since 2003. Her 2004 review was excellent in every category.

A few months later, Carolyn Thomas was hired as Baker’s new supervisor. After taking over, Thomas told Baker that:

  • Silver Oak needed people that were “young and vivacious, not slow and old”
  • Baker “needed to get rid of the dead wood”
  • Employees who had been fired were “slow and old”

She also told Baker that:

  • She dressed like an old lady
  • Everyone had to “keep up with” two supervisors who were in their thirties

The CEO, Eric Lindsey, made similar remarks at meetings attended by Baker.

Thomas also admitted that she teased Baker about walking slowly and having poor hearing. She also repeatedly asked Baker to fire and discipline older employees.

When Baker told Thomas that  “you can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old,” Thomas responded that:

  • “firing older employees would allow Silver Oak to hire younger employees for less money'”
  • “younger employees would be better workers, have more energy, be more enthusiastic, and stimulate the residents”

After refusing Thomas’ demands to get rid of the older employees, Baker was disciplined and placed on indefinite probation.

The reason given was that Baker allegedly failed to get proper approval before admitting a special-needs resident and dismissed an employee without having an administrator present.

Baker claimed that that these allegations were false.

Following those events, Thomas gave Baker a negative performance evaluation and asked Baker whether she was going to quit. She said no.

A couple of months later, Baker went on an approved medical leave. She was called in at some point during her leave, told that she had been temporarily replaced and that she was being transferred to another city.

She was again asked if she wanted to quit and again she said no.

Shortly after that she was fired. The reason given was that she did not call in each day during her medical leave. Baker was 53 years old at the time.

Angela Thomas, age 30, temporarily took over Baker’s duties until a new director — 22 year old Starr McGinnes —  was hired to replace Baker a couple of months later.

The Lawsuit

Baker filed a lawsuit claiming age discrimination and retaliation under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act and under the Missouri Human Rights Act.

While it may seem hard to believe in the face of this record, the federal district court threw out the case and granted judgment in favor of Silver Oak on all claims stating that Baker:

  • failed to present any direct evidence that age was a motivating factor in her termination (a misinterpretation of the Gross decision)
  • offered no evidence that Silver Oak’s stated reasons for firing her were a pretext for age discrimination
  • did not engage in any protected activity which would support a retaliation claim

The Court Of Appeals Reverses

Baker appealed the incomprehensible ruling of the district court. The Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed on all counts and gave Baker her day in court.

Here’s the gist of what the Court had to say.

Evidence of Age Bias

Statements by Lindsey (CEO) and Thomas (supervisor) — who participated in the decision to fire Baker — were evidence of a preference for younger workers over those protected by the ADEA.

As stated by the Court:

Lindsey’s statement to his management team that Silver Oak was ‘missing the boat by not hiring younger, vibrant people,’ and that employees ‘should start looking over applications better and try to consider hiring younger people’ is evidence that a reasonable jury could take to reflect a discriminatory attitude by one who participated in Baker’s termination.

Other evidence that the Court considered to support Baker’s age discrimination claim included:

  • Thomas’ criticism of Baker for dressing like an old lady
  • Thomas’ comments about keeping up with younger employees
  • Baker’s refusal of Thomas’ directions to discipline older workers
Evidence of Pretext

The Court also found that Baker presented plenty evidence of pretext — meaning that the reasons given for the discharge were not believable. Evidence of pretext can give rise to an inference of age discrimination and can be proved circumstantially.  “Direct evidence” is not essential.

In this case, that evidence of pretext included:

  • Baker’s explanation for why the probation was not warranted
  • Silver Oaks’ failure to follow its normal progressive discipline policy
  • Shifting explanations for why Baker was terminated:

As the Court stated:

Not every supplement to an employer’s initial statement of the reasons gives rise to an inference of pretext, but substantial variations raise suspicion.

[The evidence of pretext] is combined with evidence from which a jury could find that the management of Silver Oak harbored a discriminatory attitude toward older employees and desired to displace them in favor of a younger workforce.

Viewing all of the evidence together, we conclude that Baker has presented a submissible case of age discrimination under the ADEA.

Retaliation Claim Survives

Baker claimed that she was retaliated against because she opposed Silver Oak’s conduct which she believed to be unlawful age discrimination.

Baker filed an affidavit in which she stated that she repeatedly told Thomas:

  • That terminating older employees was wrong
  • You can’t get rid of employees just because they’re old

It’s a technical argument but in sum, the district court ignored the evidence because it was presented in an affidavit and not in Baker’s deposition or other court pleadings.

The Eighth Circuit held that the district court made an error in striking Baker’s affidavit and allowed Baker’s retaliation claim to proceed.

What’s Important About This Case

Everything but here’s the big three:

1.The case gives excellent illustrations about the kind of evidence from which a jury may infer age discrimination — including hostility towards older workers and/or a preference for younger ones.

2. On the subject of pretext the Court makes note of a failure to follow normal progressive discipline policies, and shifting explanations for the discharge.

This kind of evidence is quite common in discrimination cases, and it’s very helpful for employees to have a Circuit Court of Appeals affirm it as proof of pretext.

3. While it’s a technical point, mostly for the lawyers, it’s extremely helpful that the lower court was reversed because it struck Baker’s affidavit.

Clients don’t always remember everything important about their case when interrogated in a lengthy deposition. Many times salient points are not ever asked.

Consequently, adding important evidence to the record by way of a sworn affidavit is often necessary to fill in the evidentiary gaps. The Eighth Circuit recognized this necessary practice and affirmed its propriety.

It’s really good news for plaintiffs in discrimination cases and their lawyers.

All in all, it’s just a great case for employees who are unfortunate victims of age discrimination. It should also be instructive to employers as to what illegal age discrimination can look like in front of a jury.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She has been listed in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. Ellen has been listed as one of The Best Lawyers in America for her landmark work representing individuals in precedent-setting cases. She also received regional and national attention for winning a record $30.7 million verdict in an age-discrimination case; the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Ellen has served as an adjunct professor of employment law and is an experienced and popular orator. Ellen is Past-Chair of the Employment Rights Section of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and is honored to be a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. In additional to work as a legal analyst, she currently acts as co-counsel on individual employment cases, is available as an expert witness on employment matters and offers consulting services on sound employment practices, discrimination awareness and prevention, complaint investigation and resolution, and litigation management. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. She is also the author of the legal blog, the Employee Rights Post, and her website is www.ellensimon.net. Ellen has two children and lives with her husband in Sedona, Arizona.

This post originally appeared in Employee Rights Post on September 28, 2009. Re-printed with permission by the author.

image:therawfeed.com

Supreme Court Surprise

Wednesday, September 10th, 2008

Three years ago, I was interviewed by Court TV about the John Roberts nomination. In preparation, I painstakingly reviewed his record. In so doing, I reached the unpleasant conclusion that Roberts was philosophically opposed to civil rights and other legislation for the public good which Roberts deemed to an improper exercise of congressional power.

The Roberts’ point of view, it seemed to me, was that since Congress should not have authored this legislation to begin with, it must be as narrowly construed as possible. This was the only logic I could discern which connected a long record of what appeared to be outright hostility to plaintiffs in civil rights cases.

I was extremely worried about what might happen with Roberts at the helm of the Court. The Samuel Alito nomination, with a record equally as hostile to plaintiffs in civil rights cases as that of Roberts, made me feel even more concerned. The harsh reality of Clarence Thomas and Antonin Scalia combining with these forces was a truly frightening prospect.

But the fact remains that we never really know with any precision what one will do after ascension to the Supreme Court actually occurs. Nothing surprised me more than the Court’s decision this past year in the decision of Sprint v. Mendelsohn – and it was a very pleasant surprise indeed.

Civil rights cases are hard to prove. There is seldom direct evidence of discrimination. People don’t go around saying, “we’re not going to hire you because you’re black,” or “we’re firing you because you’re old.” More often than not, we have to prove our cases by circumstantial evidence. Part of that evidence is proving that the reason give by the employer’s decision to fire, or not hire, is not true or not believable.

Other circumstantial evidence routinely offered is that the same thing or something similar happened to co-employees. The admissibility of this kind of evidence, labeled by the defense bar as “me too” evidence has been a battleground since we started trying to prove these cases over a quarter century ago.

Lawyers who represent employees want to call other employees as witnesses to testify about the discrimination that happened to them at the same company. Simply put, these lawyers contend that co-employee testimony is circumstantial evidence that this company discriminated in this particular case because it did the same thing to other employees. In their view, the jury ought to be able to consider this evidence and give it whatever weight they choose in making the ultimate determination as to whether the plaintiff was discriminated against or not. Lawyers who represent companies don’t want those witnesses to take the stand. They say that what happened to others is not relevant, proves nothing, is confusing and prejudicial, and will result in a bunch of mini-trials about other people who are not parties to the case.

Some courts have let the evidence in. Some courts have barred it. The significance of this kind of ruling can not be overstated since one’s ability to put on co-employee testimony before a jury can make the difference as to whether the case will be won or lost. For example, where a story about why one thirty-year employee got terminated may seem plausible in isolation, it certainly seems less plausible when there are five or six other long term employees whose performance was suddenly not good enough for a company where each has worked without incident for twenty or thirty years.

Ellen Mendelsohn was terminated in a reduction of the workforce by Sprint, a company where she had worked for many years. She claimed age discrimination. Mendelsohn’s lawyer (Kansas City lawyer Dennis Egan, member of the Workplace Fairness board) attempted to introduce evidence from five other older workers who also claimed they were discriminated against because of their age when they were terminated. Three of the five were prepared to testify about denigrating remarks made about older workers. Another claimed that he was banned from working at Sprint because of his age. One was going to testify that he was required to get permission before hiring anyone over the age of forty. None were in the same department as Mendelsohn. The judge ruled the evidence inadmissible because there was no shared decision maker and no temporal proximity. The Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed and held that the evidence was admissible.

The Supreme Court accepted the case. In a decision which has a profound effect on the future of employment discrimination cases, the Court held that the trial court judge was wrong. The unanimous decision, shockingly authored by Justice Thomas, stated that a blanket rule of law excluding evidence of discrimination from co-workers in a discrimination case was wrong as a matter of law. The Court relied in its opinion on the Federal Rules of Evidence with respect to relevance, admissibility, and prejudice which vests the trial court with broad discretion on these matters. The trial court should determine whether the evidence has probative value and whether sufficient prejudice or confusion may outweigh it. It is a fundamental and liberal standard of evidence which leans toward the admission of evidence given the proper context and foundation.

So while the decision did not endorse the 10th Circuit’s view in concluding that the evidence was admissible, the opinion is earth shattering in the world of employment law for what it didn’t say – that is, that the evidence was not per se inadmissible. In other words, the Court ruled, “me too” evidence should be treated just like any other evidence in any other case.

It may seem odd that it took a pronouncement of the Supreme Court to let judges and lawyers know that the same rules that apply to evidence in all civil cases also apply in discrimination cases. But in the tortured history of discrimination litigation, the same rules unfortunately have not been applied (i.e., the granting of summary judgment where material facts are in dispute, the improper weighing of evidence by the court instead of the jury).

An opinion by the Supreme Court which held the evidence inadmissible would have been a huge blow to employees faced with the already formidable task of proving that discrimination has occurred. Fortunately, the Supreme Court in an exceedingly pleasant surprise made an important inroad–just by reciting and reinforcing the rules of evidence and thereby neutralizing the playing field.

About the Author: Ellen Simon is recognized as one of the foremost employment and civil rights lawyers in the United States. She has been listed in the National Law Journal as one of the nation’s leading litigators. Ms. Simon has been quoted often in local and national news media and is a regular guest on television and radio, including appearances on Court TV. Ellen has been listed as one of The Best Lawyers in America for her landmark work representing individuals in precedent-setting cases. She also received regional and national attention for winning a record $30.7 million verdict in an age-discrimination case – the largest of its kind in U.S. history. Ellen has served as an adjunct professor of employment law and is an experienced and popular orator. Ellen is Past-Chair of the Employment Rights Section of the Association of Trial Lawyers of America and is honored to be a fellow of the International Society of Barristers and American Board of Trial Advocates. In additional to work as a legal analyst, she currently acts as co-counsel on individual employment cases, is available as an expert witness on employment matters and offers consulting services on sound employment practices, discrimination awareness and prevention, complaint investigation and resolution, and litigation management. Ms. Simon is the owner of the Simon Law Firm, L.P.A., and Of Counsel to McCarthy, Lebit, Crystal & Liffman, a Cleveland, Ohio based law firm. Ellen has two children and lives with her husband in Sedona, Arizona.

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