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Univ. of South Carolina School of Law

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Thursday, February 28, 2008

Me Too: Supreme Court Reverses Tenth Circuit Ruling In Sprint Age Discrimination Case

In Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, 2008 WL 495370 (U.S. 2008), the United States Supreme Court concluded that "[r]elevance 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."  Ellen Mendelsohn worked in the Business Development Strategy Group for Sprint from 1989 through 2002, when Sprint terminated her as a part of an ongoing company-wide reduction on force.  Mendelsohn subsequently sued Sprint in the District Court for the District of Kansas under the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 (ADEA), claiming that she was fired based on her age.  As support for her claim, Mendelsohn sought to introduce testimony by five other former Sprint employees who claimed that their supervisors had discriminated against them because of age, but none of these other employees worked in the Business Development Strategy Group with Mendelsohn, nor had any of them worked under the supervisors in her chain of command.

Sprint thereafter brought a motion in limine to exclude this "me too" testimony on the ground that it was irrelevant under Federal Rule of Evidence 401 because the only relevant testimony could come from employees who were “similarly situated” to Mendelsohn in that they had the same supervisors.  It also argued that even if this testimony had probative value, that value was substantially outweighed by the danger of unfair prejudice, confusion of the issues, misleading of the jury, and undue delay, making it inadmissible under Federal Rule of Evidence 403.  In a minute order that did not explain its ruling in great detail, the district court granted the motion in limine.  On Mendelsohn's appeal, the Tenth Circuit treated the minute order as the application of a per se rule that evidence from employees with other supervisors is irrelevant to proving discrimination in an ADEA case.  The Tenth Circuit then disagreed with this alleged conclusion, engaged its own weighing of the testimony's relevance and prejudice, determined that the testimony was admissible, and thus reversed and remanded for a new trial.

The Supreme Court subsequently granted certorari, and on Tuesday, it determined in a unanimous opinion that the Court of Appeals erred in conducting its own weighing of the testimony's relevance and prejudice after concluding that the District Court applied a per se rule.  The Supreme Court found that, had the district court applied a per se rule excluding the evidence, the Court of Appeals would have been correct to conclude that it had abused its discretion because "[r]elevance 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."  According to the Supreme Court, however, even if this were the case, the Tenth Circuit should merely have remanded the case because questions of relevance and prejudice are for the district court to determine in the first instance because it is virtually always is in the better position to assess the admissibility of the evidence in the context of the particular case before it. The Supreme Court, however, concluded that there was no evidence that the district court applied a per se rule, but because the basis for the district court's opinion was unclear, it remanded the case with instructions to have the district court clarify the basis for its evidentiary ruling.

In the wake of the ruling, a number of articles boasted headlines such as "Ruling May Aid Those Charging Age Bias" and "Court ruling helps ex-employee."  In actuality, however, on the one hand, the Supreme Court actually struck down the Tenth Circuit opinion deeming Mendelsohn's "me too" testimony admissible, harming her cause and the cause of those charging age bias.  On the other hand, the Court's ruling said nothing specifically about "me too" testimony except for that, as with most testimony, its relevance/prejudice cannot be decided on a per se basis.

-CM

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