Supreme Court States Unanimously: Discrimination Can Be Proved By The Employer’s False Explanations for Firing, Even Absent “Direct” Discriminatory Statements

By: Leizer Goldsmith

The Supreme Court struck a major blow in favor of employee rights on June 12, when it unanimously rejected the attempts of several courts of appeals to create new, restrictive rules that were making it extremely difficult to prove intentional discrimination in many parts of the country. In the case, Reeves v. Sanderson (Neil: please refer to prior column and link to it), the Court emphatically embraced the principle that an older employee must be given his day in court to attempt to prove age discrimination to the jury, when younger persons were given his job after termination, and the company’s explanations for its actions were arguably false. Justice O’Connor wrote for the Court that its decision was merely consistent with the general principle of law that a jury may consider a party’s dishonesty as evidence of guilt. This simple proposition had been essentially rejected by a significant portion of the federal judiciary in various types of discrimination cases. It has now been vindicated.

On one level, the case was simple: plaintiff Roger Reeves, an older employee of a plumbing supply manufacturer, was subject to age-biased statements such as: “you’re too damn old to do the job.” The jury had awarded him $35,000 for intentional age discrimination. However, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the Court, stated clearly that the court of appeals was wrong to take the power to decide the case from the jury, not just because of those statements, but more importantly, because it was for the jury decide whether or not the company’s claim that the firing was due to Reeves’ timekeeping violations was true, or whether age was the real reason, as Reeves asserted.

Justice O’Connor wrote that there was plenty of evidence from which the jury could believe Reeves and disbelieve Sanderson, such as the fact that the company knew that certain alleged attendance violations by Reeves’ subordinates were not really violations at all, and the fact that Reeves’ supervisor was responsible for the overpayment of an employee, not Reeves. Justice O’Connor also noted evidence of the ages of the employees hired to replace Reeves, and discounted the fact that among the decision makers who terminated Reeves were individuals who were also over age fifty. The Court found that the case was properly submitted to the jury, and that the jury’s verdict issued in Reeves’ favor must be reinstated.

The Court’s opinion also stated that a jury verdict favorable to a discrimination plaintiff should not be overturned if the plaintiff presented enough evidence to convince the jury that discrimination occurred, regardless of the employer’s explanation.

Although it is certainly questionable whether staunchly conservative lower courts will properly apply this decision to other cases as the Supreme Court obviously intends, it would be difficult to overstate the importance of this decision. Very seldom does an employee who believes he or she has been victimized by discrimination have evidence that the employer has admitted guilt. In the geographic areas covered by those courts which have been requiring that sort of evidence to prove discrimination, employers have been far freer to discriminate, with much less reason to be concerned that they might lose a subsequent lawsuit. Employees who have been harmed, but who previously would have been shut out by the courts, may now press their claims with a greater hope for success, and justice.

There could be hundreds of thousands of Americans who are positively impacted by the outcome of Reeves. If you have been discriminated against recently, but thought that you had no case because you had no direct statements by the employer admitting to race, age, sex or disability bias, you should reevaluate your case. In our system of justice, the lower courts will now be expected to enforce this highly significant Supreme Court decision.

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