U.S. Supreme Court: Employment Discrimination Evidence Must Be Determined by Trial Courts
The U.S. Supreme Court is busy with an unusually large number of employment cases this term, and today the Court issued its opinion in one closely watched case. By many accounts, the decision is somewhat of a letdown for employment attorneys because the Supreme Court did not really decide much of anything, and certainly did not change the law or the way that employment discrimination cases will be litigated.
The case is Sprint/United Management v. Mendelsohn. A copy of the opinion is published here.
The case had been hyped as one in which the Supreme Court would weigh in on the use of so-called “me too” evidence in employment discrimination cases. “Me-too” evidence consists of testimony by co-workers who allege that they, too, were discriminated against. Plaintiffs suing for employment discrimination must prove discriminatory motive in the employer’s decision, whether in hiring, promotion, termination, etc. Plaintiffs frequently will try to prove discriminatory motive by offering the testimony of other employees who believe they were discriminated against, sometimes in different work groups by different supervisors, while employers routinely argue that such evidence is not relevant or that it is remote and unfair for the jury to hear. In this particular case, the plaintiff Ellen Mendelsohn wanted to support her age discrimination claim by introducing testimony from five employees who believed they were discriminated against based on age. The trial court judge would not allow the other employees to testify because their experiences with different supervisors were not relevant, but the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed and reversed.
Justice Thomas writing for a unanimous Supreme Court held that evidentiary rulings should be made by the trial courts who can consider all the facts and the particular relevance of the evidence and not by the court of appeals. As stated in the opinion, “Relevance and prejudice under Rules 401 and 403 are determined in the context of the facts and arguments in a particular case, and thus are generally not amenable to broad per se rules.” The bottom line is that the decision does not change the law. Trial courts have always addressed the relevance and unfair prejudice of such evidence on a case by case basis and that is what will continue under the Supreme Court’s ruling today.