Tuesday, February 26, 2008
Here are the relevant parts of the syllabus of the unanimous Supreme Court ADEA opinion written by Justice Thomas in Sprint/United Management v. Mendelsohn, 552 U.S. x (2008):
In respondent Mendelsohn's age discrimination case, petitioner Sprint moved in limine to exclude the testimony of former employees alleging discrimination by supervisors who had no role in the employment decision Mendelsohn challenged, on the ground that such evidence was irrelevant to the case's central issue, see Fed. Rules Evid. 401, 402, and unduly prejudicial, see Rule 403. Granting the motion, the District Court excluded evidence of discrimination against those not "similarly situated" to Mendelsohn. The Tenth Circuit treated that order as applying a per se rule that evidence from employees of other supervisors is irrelevant in age discrimination cases, concluded that the District Court abused its discretion by relying on the Circuit's Aramburu case, determined that the evidence was relevant and not unduly prejudicial, and remanded for a new trial.
Held: The Tenth Circuit erred in concluding that the District Court applied a per se rule and thus improperly engaged in its own analysis of the relevant factors under Rules 401 and 403, rather than remanding the case for the District Court to clarify its ruling.
(a) In deference to a district court's familiarity with a case's details and its greater experience in evidentiary matters, courts of appeals uphold Rule 403 rulings unless the district court has abused its discretion. Here, the Tenth Circuit did not accord due deference to the District Court . . . .
(b) Because of the Tenth Circuit's error, it went on to assess the relevance of the evidence itself and conduct its own balancing of probative value and potential prejudicial effect when it should have allowed the District Court to make these determinations in the first instance, explicitly and on the record.
So the Supreme Court seems has punted somewhat on the more difficult evidentiary issues discussed here and decided this case on the easiest possible basis: a lack of proper deferral by the 10th Circuit to the district court's ambiguous conclusion. As a result, the Supreme Court did not have to weigh in on the relevancy of "me too" in an ADEA discrimination case, especially one involving a reduction-in-force.
However, in what might be important dicta down the road in employment discrimination cases everywhere, Justice Thomas wrote:
We note 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. 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. See Advisory Committee’s Notes on Fed. Rule Evid. 401, 28 U. S. C. App., p. 864 (“Relevancy is not an inherent characteristic of any item of evidence but exists only as a relation between an item of evidence and a matter properly provable in the case”). But, as we havediscussed, there is no basis in the record for concluding that the District Court applied a blanket rule.
Expect to see that language cited often by employment discrimination plaintiffs. Indeed, given the current rightward-bent of this Court and its tendency to support employer interests, this decision has to be deemed a moral victory for ADEA plaintiffs, although I doubt the remand/clarification of this issue will be decided in Mendlesohn's favor.
And FWIW, my 5-4 prediction for Sprint based on substantive issues completely missed the boat. Imagine that!