the Supreme Court issued one decision, described below, of
interest to the business community.
Sprint/United Mgmt. Co. v. Mendelsohn, No. 06-1221
(previously discussed in the
June 11, 2007 Docket Report). A recurring issue in
employment discrimination cases is whether courts are required
to admit the testimony of employees (other than the plaintiff)
who allege that they have been discriminated against by other
supervisors. The Supreme Court held today that, under the
Federal Rules of Evidence, such testimony "is neither per se
admissible nor per se inadmissible" (slip op. 1), but
instead must be determined on a case-by-case basis.
The Court's decision is an important
one for employers that routinely defend against employment
discrimination lawsuits. The decision clarifies that the
admissibility of such evidence requires examination of the facts
and context of a particular case, and is generally a matter that
falls within the district court's discretion.
The plaintiff in Mendelsohn
sued Sprint, alleging disparate treatment in violation of the
Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§
621-634, based on her termination as part of a reduction in
force (RIF). She sought to introduce testimony of five other
employees who had been terminated as part of the same RIF,
although "[n]one of the five witnesses worked in" the same group
as Mendelsohn, "nor had any of them worked under the supervisors
in her chain of command." Slip op. 2. The district court
granted Sprint's motion in limine to exclude that
evidence, and Sprint subsequently prevailed at trial. The Tenth
Circuit reversed, holding that the district court abused its
discretion in excluding the evidence because it was relevant and
not unduly prejudicial.
In a unanimous opinion by Justice
Thomas, the Supreme Court vacated the Tenth Circuit's judgment
and remanded the case. The Court noted that, if the district
court had "applied a per se rule excluding" the proffered
evidence of discrimination by other supervisors, the court of
appeals "would have been correct to conclude" that the district
court abused its discretion. Id. at 8. The Court
explained that the concepts of relevance and prejudice under
Federal Rules of Evidence 401 and 403 "are determined in the
context of the facts and arguments in a particular case, and
thus are generally not amenable to per se rules." Id.
But the Court held that the Tenth Circuit had "erred in
concluding" that the district court applied a per se rule
to exclude the nonparty testimony (slip op. 4), because the
"district court's language [was] ambiguous" on that score and it
was "improper for the court of appeals to presume that the lower
court reached an improper legal conclusion" (id. at 7).
The Court also concluded that the court of appeals erred in "assess[ing]
the relevance of the evidence itself and conduct[ing] its own
balancing of [the] probative value and potential prejudicial
effect" of the evidence, because "a district court virtually
always is in the better position to assess the admissibility of
the evidence in the context of the particular case before it."
Id. at 7-8. Thus, the Court ordered that the case be
remanded so that the district court could "clarify the basis for
its evidentiary ruling." Id. at 9.
On the underlying issue of whether
evidence of discrimination by other supervisors is admissible,
the Court provided only general guidance. Whether such evidence
is relevant under Rule 401, the Court said, is a "fact based"
inquiry that "depends upon many factors, including how closely
related the evidence is to the plaintiff's circumstances and
theory of the case." Id. at 8-9. And the Court
explained that "[a]pplying Rule 403 to determine if evidence is
prejudicial" likewise requires "a fact-intensive,
context-specific inquiry." Id. at 9. In the absence of
more specific guidelines, there is certain to be further
litigation in the lower courts over whether such nonparty
testimony is admissible.
Mayer Brown filed an amicus brief on
behalf of the Chamber of Commerce of the United States in
support of the petitioner.