Supreme Court Hears Employment Discrimination Case

On Monday, December 3, the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Sprint v. Mendelsohn, an employment discrimination case brought by Ellen Mendelsohn, a former Sprint employee who believes that she was unlawfully selected for a company-wide reduction in force because of her age. At trial, the judge prohibited Mendelsohn from presenting the testimony of other terminated workers who would have testified to age-related bias within the company unless those workers had the same supervisor that Mendelsohn had had. Mendelsohn lost at trial, but the court of appeals reversed, holding that the testimony of the other employees should have been allowed.

The issue before the Supreme Court is whether such “other supervisor” evidence should have been admitted at trial. As we have previously reported in Court Watch, People For the American Way Foundation has joined other civil rights groups in an amicus curiae brief in support of Ms. Mendelsohn, explaining the importance of such evidence to the ability of workers victimized by unlawful discrimination to obtain access to justice in the courts.

At oral argument on Monday, counsel for Sprint advocated for a harsh, virtually absolute bar on “other supervisor” evidence in cases like this, claiming that such evidence is irrelevant. Even the Bush Administration, which has filed an amicus brief in the case, disagrees with the adoption of such a blanket rule, and several of the justices seemed skeptical of Sprint’s argument that such evidence is irrelevant.

But some of the justices also expressed concerns about the consequences of allowing such evidence to be admitted at trial, and some appeared to believe that it was within the district court’s discretion to exclude the evidence in this case. While it is always difficult to make predictions about cases based on oral argument, it seems from the justices’ questions that this case will result in a sharply divided ruling, whichever way it comes down.

A decision is expected by the end of June.


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