Last week, the California Supreme Court issued a blunt decision decrying the way that employers and too many lower court abuse summary judgment to prevent employees from getting their cases to a jury. The case is Reid v. Google, Inc., Case No. S158965 (8/5/2010).
Brian Reid has a Ph.D. in computer science, and used to teach at Stanford University. Google hired him in 2002 to be director of engineering and operations. Reid was 52 years old at the time. In 2003, Google gave Reid a glowing evaluation. But a younger vice president called him "slow" and his ideas were "obsolete" and "too old to matter." Others called him "old man" and "fuddy duddy." Then Google demoted him and denied him any bonus. In February 2004, Google fired him claiming job elimination and poor performance. Reid sued claiming age discrimination. Reid collected statistics to show that Google had discriminated against other older workers. Google made a motion for summary judgment claiming that Reid could not prove his case. The trial court judge agreed saying that Reid could not prove that Google’s stated reasons were "pretextual." In essence, the judge told Reid, "since you can’t prove that Google was lying, you can’t win." The court of appeals disagreed and ordered that the case go back for a trial. Google then appealed to the state Supreme Court.
On the "stray remarks" issue, the Supreme Court said that the court of appeals correctly considered the vice president’s statements as relevant evidence of discrimination. The court relied on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in Reeves v. Sanderson Plumbing Products, Inc. (2000) 530 U.S. 133, 152-153, which held that it is up to the jury to decide of such comments indicate that illegal discrimination motivated the employer. At page 37, the court said, "Although stray remarks may not have strong probative value when viewed in isolation, they may corroborate direct evidence of discrimination or gain significance in conjunction with other circumstantial evidence."
The court made light of an employer practice to distinguish who was the official "decisionmaker" and then object to any evidence about any other company official who might have a discriminatory motive. The court noted that it can be difficult to tell who really participated in the decision. The weight to be given to any particular remarks will necessarily involve consideration of who made the remarks, but that decision is for the jury, not the judge.
The court also criticized a practice I have seen too many company lawyers use: the full court press objecting to all your evidence. Quoting another court, the California Supreme Court said, "all too often, litigants file blunderbuss objections to virtually every item of evidence submitted." The court added, "litigants should focus on the objections that really count. Otherwise, they may face informal reprimands or formal sanctions for engaging in abusive practices." This is exactly the type of warning we needed about abuse of summary judgment.
This decision should help remove one of the major barriers for whistleblowers trying to prove retaliation in California. Hopefully other states, and the federal courts, will join in this movement to reject summary judgment abuse and respect the role of the jury.