The Supreme Court’s Reeves Decision: A Powerful Tool for Employees?

By: Leizer Goldsmith

Last week’s Supreme Court decision in Reeves v. Sanderson was primarily notable for the Court’s clear statement 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. A big question remains, however, as to how fully the Court’s decision will be enforced by the lower courts. As I discussed the decision with several prominent plaintiff-oriented discrimination attorneys last week, reaction was decidedly mixed. For sure, the Court’s opinion stated emphatically that employees may prove discrimination without confessions or admissions by their employers. That point is indisputably central to vindicating the rights of employment discrimination victims. However, the Supreme Court’s prior decision from 1993 had already made that point clear, and still many courts had ignored it. Will it be different this time?

For instance, the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, which covers parts of the mid-Atlantic region including Virginia and Maryland, had ruled despite the prior Supreme Court ruling, that discrimination cases should be dismissed if the proof was solely indirect. It seems to be a fair question whether that Court will truly change its approach to comply with the law, now that the Supreme Court has disagreed with it for a second time. Some of the pessimism on this subject can also be attributed to the Fourth Circuit’s record of upholding summary judgment (dismissal) decisions by the lower court judges in virtually every discrimination case (over three hundred in all) brought to it over the past seven years. Some plaintiffs’ attorneys privately suspect that in some of its written opinions in those cases, the Fourth Circuit incorrectly described the facts in order to justify a pro-management outcome. If that were true, it would be hard to see it changing just because of a new Supreme Court decision. There is similar speculation regarding the Fifth Circuit, which primarily covers Texas.

The Reeves decision included some other points that should be helpful to discrimination plaintiffs, if they are properly followed by the lower courts. For one, the Court implicitly, but strongly, criticized what has come to be known as the “stray remarks” doctrine. Under that rule, courts have prevented juries from considering racist or sexist remarks by proclaiming them irrelevant, if they were not made by the exact same person who fired or disciplined the employee, and were not made extremely close in time to the firing or discipline. Similarly, the Court implicitly called into question the concept– widely adopted by many courts– which holds that an employer which employs other older, minority or female workers, must be incapable of discriminating against other individuals within that group.

Without a doubt, Reeves gives employees a lot to cheer about. However, the Supreme Court reviews only a tiny fraction of all federal employment cases. The real impact of Reeves will be known only in the coming months, once the Courts of Appeals have decided other, similar cases based on the precedent created by Reeves. Those Americans concerned with employee rights and civil rights will be watching those upcoming decisions closely.

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