California Supreme Court Limits “Stray Remarks” Doctrine
Today the California Supreme Court issued its decision in Reid v. Google, an age discrimination case decided favorably for Google at the trial court level. The trial court threw the case out on summary judgment, finding that the plaintiff's evidence of "stray remarks" by non-decisionmakers and/or unrelated to the decision-making process, was insufficient evidence of discrimination to merit a trial. The appellate court reversed the order granting Google summary judgment and held that the evidence of stray remarks was admissible and could be considered by the court in finding sufficient evidence of discrimination to deny an employer's motion for summary judgment. Today the California Supreme Court agreed and rejected strict application of the stray remarks doctrine in California discrimination cases. The Court also held that a party's objections to evidence (lodged in the trial court) are preserved on appeal, even if the trial court does not rule on those objections. (However, objections that are not specifically ruled upon are deemed presumptively overruled on appeal.) This post focuses on the decision as relates to the stray remarks doctrine.
Under the stray remarks doctrine, which is widely accepted in federal courts, evidence offered by a plaintiff that a co-worker or a non-decisionmaker made discriminatory remarks is not enough to defeat an employer's motion for summary judgment. Thus, by way of example, if a plaintiff is suing for age discrimination and the employer makes a motion for summary judgment, arguing that plaintiff's termination was the result of poor performance and not any discriminatory motive, the plaintiff may try to defeat summary judgment by presenting evidence that co-workers or a supervisor not involved in the termination decision made ageist comments in the workplace. Under the stray remarks doctrine, such evidence would be considered irrelevant and inadmissible because it is not deemed probative of establishing discriminatory animus on the part of those actually involved in the decision-making process leading to termination. As such, this type of evidence would not be enough to defeat the employer's motion for summary judgment.
Today's decision in Reid v. Google makes it more difficult for California employers to rely on the stray remarks doctrine because the Supreme Court specifically rejected strict application of the doctrine in California discrimination cases. The Court instead held that evidence of stray remarks is admissible and must be considered along with the totality of the facts and inferences to be drawn from those facts, in determining whether the plaintiff has presented sufficient evidence of discrimination to necessitate a trial on the merits. On the specific facts of the case before it, the Court held that Reid had presented sufficient evidence of age discrimination to make summary judgment inappropriate for Google. Notably, Reid presented more than just stray remark evidence. Reid presented statistical evidence arguably suggesting age discriminationand also presented evidence that Google provided him shifting reasons for the termination decision. In terms of "stray remarks," Reid additionally offered evidence that his superiors remarked that he was not a "cultural fit," that his ideas were "obsolete," and that he was "slow," "fuzzy," "lethargic," and did not display a "sense of urgency." Co-workers allegedly called him an "old man" and "old fuddy duddy" on some occasions. Although there was a lack of evidence tying any of these alleged remarks to the termination decision itself or to those responsible for making the decision, the Court held that this evidence, combined with other evidence, was admissible and sufficient evidence of discriminatory intent to defeat Google's motion for summary judgment. To be clear, however, the Court did not rule that Google discriminated against Reid. The Court simply held that there was sufficient evidence to proceed to a trial on that issue.
The Reid case is not a positive development for California employers' ability to win employment discrimination cases on summary judgment. However, the case should not be misinterpreted as suggesting that stray remarks are, in and of themselves, sufficient evidence to always defeat summary judgment. Rather, the case simply holds that stray remarks may be considered, along with other evidence, in assessing whether the plaintiff has enough evidence upon which a jury could conclude that discrimination was the motivating factor behind the adverse employment action.