Justices uphold juries on age bias

High court curtails judges from asking for more proof


June 13, 2000|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - A unanimous Supreme Court lowered the legal hurdles yesterday that workers must clear in order to win a jury verdict finding them to be victims of age discrimination.

The ruling made clear that, if a worker has convinced a jury that age bias was the reason for a firing or a lost promotion, judges or appeals courts may not then demand even more evidence to convince them that discrimination occurred.

The ruling clarifies a legal standard the court has used for 27 years to judge various discrimination claims under federal civil rights laws. The so-called "McDonnell Douglas standard" on discrimination gets its name from a 1973 ruling.

While yesterday's ruling came in a case involving workplace bias based on age, the decision may also have an impact on employee cases involving race and sex discrimination, and perhaps on those involving bias against the disabled.

The case involved a 57-year-old plumbing factory worker in Tupelo, Miss., who lost his job as a supervisor and then sued, claiming that he was fired because of his age. The employer, Sanderson Plumbing Products Inc., countered that he was fired because of poor record keeping.

But the worker, Roger Reeves, convinced the jury that the explanation given by management was false, and was merely a cover for age discrimination.

Reeves pointed out that his boss had told him several times that he was too old for the job. The jury awarded him damages of $70,000 for the bias, and tacked on another $28,491 for lost pay.

A federal appeals court, however, overturned the verdict. It said that even though the jury may have been convinced that Reeves should win, he could do so only if he offered additional, harder proof in court to show that discrimination led to his firing. The appeals court ruled against him.

The Supreme Court rejected the appeals court approach.

Laying down a refined version of its legal test for discrimination cases, the court said that if a worker who loses a job or promotion presents enough evidence to convince a jury that discrimination did occur and that the employer's claim of a legitimate reason for acting was false, then the jury verdict is not to be overturned because the worker does not present even more solid proof of bias to the judge after the verdict or later to an appeals court.

"Once the employer's justification has been eliminated, discrimination may well be the most likely alternative explanation, especially since the employer is in the best position to put forth the actual reason for its decision," the court said in an opinion by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

If there was strong evidence that the management explanation was false, O'Connor said, it may be assumed that the justification offered was not the actual reason, and that bias was.

Having convinced the jury, O'Connor said, the worker was not obliged to summon even more evidence to convince the appeals court to uphold the verdict.

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