Yesterday, the Supreme Court found that evidence of discrimination against other employees may be admissible in an age discrimination case, depending on the circumstances. In Sprint/United Management Co. v. Mendelsohn, the Court found that whether this type of evidence should be admitted is a "fact-intensive, context-specific inquiry" that should be made by the district (trial) court. That court is in the best position to judge whether the relevance of evidence is outweighed, on balance, by its potential to create prejudice in the minds of the jury, which is the ultimate test for deciding whether evidence can be admitted at trial. (For more on this test and the underlying facts of the case, see my previous post.)
Mendelsohn lost her age discrimination case at trial, after the district court excluded testimony from other employees. The district court found that other employees should be allowed to testify only if they were claiming that Mendelsohn's direct supervisor had discriminated against them, close in time to when Mendelsohn said she was discriminated against. Mendelsohn appealed and won; the Court of Appeals for the 10th Circuit said that the evidence should have been admitted. The Supreme Court found fault with both of the lower courts -- the District Court for failing to adequately explain why it was excluding the evidence, and the Court of Appeals for deciding evidentiary issues that should be left to the District Court. The Supreme Court sent the case back so the District Court could explain itself.
For the parties in this case, the decision was mostly a victory for the employer. Sprint already won at trial, and the Court of Appeals' decision would have forced a new trial with the evidence from other employees included. Depending on what the District Court says in explaining why it kept the evidence out, Sprint may still come out on top.
For everyone else, however, this decision could be a win for employees, mostly because of what the Supreme Court didn't do. The Supreme Court could have made a blanket rule that evidence of discrimination against other employees is never admissible unless the same decision-maker is involved -- but it didn't. Instead, the Court found that this has to be a case-by-case decision, dependent on the facts and the legal theories involved. This means that employees remain free to try to introduce this evidence, and trial courts may not reject it out of hand without taking a close look at the facts. As Linda Greenhouse points out in the New York Times article "A Case-By-Case Ruling on Discrimination," it also may mean that more employees are able to defeat an employer's motion for summary judgment (a request that the judge throw the case out before trial) and get their cases in front of a jury.