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Supreme Court to hear important employment law case

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Hiring,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

promoted in HR Weekly e-letter -- oct. 2, 07

In a term that will be dominated by cases concerning Guantanamo detainees and the power of the Executive branch, the U.S. Supreme Court will also hear an important case involving employment discrimination.

The question in Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn: Should courts hearing discrimination lawsuits consider evidence that managers (other than the one who allegedly discriminated against the suing employee) may have been biased against other employees? Plaintiffs’ attorneys love this kind of “me too” testimony, but several circuit courts have ruled it inadmissible.

No word yet on exactly when the Supreme Court will hear the case.

The case: Sprint terminated Ellen Mendelsohn, age 51, during a company-wide reduction in force. She sued for age discrimination under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act. When the case went to trial, Mendelsohn tried to introduce evidence from other Sprint employees who said entirely different Sprint managers had also discriminated against them at about the same time.

The judge refused to admit the testimony, since it didn’t involve the same managers who decided to fire Mendelsohn—he said their testimony wasn’t relevant to Mendelsohn’s claim. Sprint won that round.

But on appeal, the 10th Circuit Court reversed the decision and ordered a new trial. The circuit court ruled that “me too” testimony might show a company-wide pattern of discrimination, and that Mendelsohn should have the chance to present the evidence to a jury.

Since several other circuit courts have ruled in just the opposite way, the Supreme Court will now attempt to reconcile the judicial discrepancy.

Advice: No matter how the high court decides this case, employers can save on legal bills by following a few simple steps.

First, make sure all managers understand what constitutes discrimination and that you won’t tolerate it.

Second, keep detailed records of all hiring, discipline and termination decisions—and track them by type of employee. That means noting employees’ protected status—age, gender, race, etc.

That way, you’ll be able to show that you treated “similarly situated” employees equally.

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