The California Supreme Court’s 2010 decision in Reid v. Google, Inc. has significantly broadened the scope of evidence that aggrieved workers may present in order to prove wrongful discrimination in the workplace.
In 2002, the named Plaintiff in the Supreme Court decision, Brian Reid, was hired by Google at the age of 52 to serve as Google’s director of operations and director of engineering. After his first year with Google, Reid received positive reviews about his work, however, there was an emphasis on the fact that a big part of the first year was adapting to Google culture which was different because of its “Younger contributors, inexperienced first line managers, and the super fast pace.”
During Reid’s tenure with Google, several of his co-workers, along with some high ranking Google executives made derogatory comments about Reid’s age. For example, Reid was told by the Vice President of engineering operations that his opinions were “obsolete” and “too old to matter.” Reid was also referred to as “slow,” “fuzzy,” “sluggish,” and “lethargic,” and told that he did not “display a sense of urgency” and “lack[ed] energy.” Reid was also told by other co-workers that he was an “old man,” an “old fuddy-duddy,” and that his CD jewel case office placard should be an “LP” instead of a “CD.”
In 2003, a little over a year after Reid first joined Google, Reid was removed from his position as director of engineering, and instead asked to work on implementing an in-house graduate degree program. Reid was given no budget and no staff to implement the program. Shortly after the move, Google terminated Reid, claiming it did so because Reid’s job had been eliminated. Reid contended that he was simply told he was not a “cultural fit.”
Following his termination, Reid brought suit against Google, alleging, among other things, age-discrimination in violation of the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA). The trial court granted Google’s motion for summary judgment holding that the statements made about Reid by other Google employees were “stray remarks,” and therefore, were not admissible as evidence of age discrimination.
The California Supreme Court disagreed with the trial court, and instead decided not to adopt the “stray remarks doctrine.” Under the doctrine, federal courts deem irrelevant, remarks that are made by non-decision making employees, or those made by decision making employees that are unrelated to the termination decision. The California Supreme Court decided not to adopt the doctrine, noting that to do so would cause courts to categorically exclude relevant evidence simply because the remark was made outside the decision making process or by a non-decision maker. The Court noted that although stray remarks alone may not have a high evidentiary value, they may be relevant in helping to corroborate direct evidence, or may become more significant when considered with other circumstantial evidence. Given this consideration, the Court held that a trial court must make a summary judgment determination based on the totality of the circumstances, and consider all relevant evidence, including stray discriminatory remarks.
The impact of the Court’s decision in Reid can be quite far-reaching for employees. While aggrieved employees are still unlikely to survive summary judgment based on stray remarks alone, such remarks can be helpful in painting a picture of discrimination. The rejection of the “stray remarks doctrine” in Reid will make courts less likely to disregard comments showing blatant bias and discrimination, based solely on who makes the comments or in what context. Instead, employees may now bring these comments into evidence to help strengthen their overall case, and survive summary judgment, so that it can be left up to the jury to decide the significance of the remarks.
Carlin and Buchsbaum is an employee rights law firm in Long Beach, California. Our wrongful termination lawyers specialize in employment law and discrimination in the workplace. Please contact your Carlin & Buchsbaum Long Beach employee rights attorney with any questions.