The question in Sprint/United : Should courts hearing discrimination lawsuits consider evidence that other managers in the organization—beyond the one accused of discrimination—may have been biased against other employees? Plaintiffs’ attorneys love this kind of “me too” testimony, but several circuit courts have ruled it inadmissible. Co. v. Mendelsohn
In today’s unanimous decision, the court ruled that federal courts can’t block "me too" evidence without a fuller explanation than the one given by a judge in the Sprint case. The AP reports that this ruling “has left the door open for workers in age discrimination cases to present supporting evidence from other employees at a company.”
Courts must look at the facts, the opinion said, to make such decisions: “Whether evidence of discrimination by other supervisors is relevant in an individual ADEA case is fact based and depends on many factors, including how closely related the evidence is to the plaintiff’s circumstances and theory of the case.”
The case: Sprint terminated Ellen Mendelsohn, age 51, during a companywide reduction in force. She sued for age discrimination. When the case went to trial, Mendelsohn tried to introduce evidence from other Sprint employees who said other Sprint managers had also discriminated against them at about the same time.
The lower-court judge said this evidence was irrelevant. He refused to admit the testimony since it didn’t involve the same managers who decided to fire Mendelsohn. 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 companywide 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, business and employee groups were looking for the Supreme Court to reconcile the discrepancy.
But with today's Supreme Court ruling, there's still no definitive answer to whether employees who claim they were discriminated against can pull in other examples of company discrimination in an effort to prove their case. Employers should expect that clever employee attorneys will try to find discrimination examples elsewhere in the company to bolster their claims.
Bottom line: Avoid discrimination claims in the first place
First, make sure all managers understand what constitutes discrimination and that your organization 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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